Safety Leader

Diversity's Strength in the Workplace: Experts discuss ways of embracing and ensuring the safety of today's workforces

Published On
Feb 14, 2022

Did you know?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ “National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries in 2019” (prepandemic data):

  • More than 5,300 fatal occupational injuries occurred in 2019, the largest annual number since 2007. Essentially, one worker died approximately every 90 minutes from a work-related injury in 2019.
  • Nearly 40% of those fatalities (2,005) occurred among workers ages 55 and over, the largest number ever recorded within that age group.
  • Nearly 1,100 of those fatal work-related injuries (20%) involved Hispanic/Latino workers, a record high in that segment since 1992.

Statistics confirm that today’s workforce is the most diverse in our country’s nearly 250-year history—from the increasing participation of men and women in previously gender-segregated fields to the growing presence of older workers, military veterans and individuals with disabilities in all industry sectors.

In addition, foreign-born workers made up more than 17% of the labor force in 2019, with Hispanic or Latin Americans becoming the fastest-growing segment in the U.S. workplace. Data from the U.S. Department of Labor reveals that there are currently about 24 million workers of Hispanic descent in the United States. It’s anticipated that by 2050, Hispanic workers will represent 25% of the total labor force.

These trends are only expected to continue in the future. According to the 30-year-old “USA Today Diversity Index,” the probability that any two people chosen at random from a given census area are of different races or ethnicities was 55% in 2010 and is expected to increase to 71% by 2060.

The bottom line? The diversity present in today’s workplace—marked by such factors as race, gender, ethnic group, culture, age, disability, organizational role, education, background and more—requires a “systems thinking” approach to safety, as shared in a September 2021 presentation at the American Society of Safety Professionals’ online conference.

A range of attributes and experiences

First and foremost, companies need to embrace a modern definition of the term “diversity,” said co-presenter Luz Marin, assistant professor in the Department of Safety Sciences at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in Indiana, Pa.

“The fact is, we’re a globalized world with a mix of workers, but diversity isn’t just about people from different countries,” Marin said. “We want to promote a broader concept of diversity—it’s not just about having more non-English speakers in the workplace. As the Department of Labor defines it, diversity refers to ‘the infinite range of individuals’ unique attributes and experiences.’ Therefore, a systems approach provides a broader perspective that can help organizations benefit from diversity.”

For example, she said, “the U.S. labor force contains a sizable population of military veterans and disabled individuals as well as older workers, many of whom are working until later in life because they can’t afford to retire. Older people in the workforce performing tasks that are very physically demanding may experience more musculoskeletal injuries, so companies need to consider that within their safety programs.”

Co-presenter Lizzette Vargas-Malpica agreed. She is the land, buildings and real estate safety director at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif.

“Many times, ethnic background is the one thing people focus on, and they may overlook many other determinants of worker diversity, including age, disability, veteran status, language and more. Even if an individual is U.S.-born, where they grew up, their family and cultural influences, and work and life experience can impact their experience on the job,” she said. “Simply translating safety protocols into different languages doesn’t address their ability to understand or comply with them, because so many different factors can be involved.”

Diversity is a strength

According to Marin, recognizing the different perspectives is important because we live in a global society.

“Working with people from different places helps companies understand different facets of life and can create greater satisfaction among employees if it’s embraced,” Marin said. “If you feel you’re respected in the workplace based on your gender, age, background, etc., it builds an organizational climate that welcomes people because of the differences they bring and the sense that the company recognizes you as an individual and appreciates the contribution you make to the workplace, both personally and professionally.”

“Diversity is a strength, if we know how to manage it, and it ties back to systems thinking,” Vargas-Malpica said. “The range of perspectives offered by different people enriches the whole system, makes work environments more inclusive, and helps us see other viewpoints. It’s great to see how different people interact with and help each other, such as younger employees helping older ones with new technology. It makes us all stronger.”

“By the same token, workers with greater seniority when it comes to their knowledge of hazards and injuries can bring so much beneficial information and experience to younger workers,” Marin said. “It’s important for organizations to promote these kinds of exchanges and encourage workers to share different approaches.”

Vargas-Malpica believes that the more diversity is celebrated and allowed to flourish, and the more workers are empowered, “the more likely companies are to eliminate the barriers that cause issues between different groups in the workplace.”

Ultimately, however, “Diversity and inclusion aren’t goals, but rather values that are a means to improve the organizational climate and its outcomes,” Marin said. “It’s a process and a top-down approach that needs to permeate the entire organization to be successful. Diversity can’t be a ‘trendy’ thing that’s instituted just because society demands it, because in an effort to improve diversity, companies can sometimes end up taking actions that discriminate against certain people. So companies need to have a clear vision of why they’re welcoming people of different backgrounds onto their team.”

Taking a systems approach to safety

According to Marin and Vargas-Malpica, a “systems-­thinking approach” to workforce safety involves a dynamic view of how an organization works and how different components affect each other to better understand the whole system.

“All of the variables and events in a company are interconnected and influence each other,” Marin said. “We need to understand that safety isn’t isolated—it’s connected to age, role in the organization, health/medical conditions, social status, etc., and needs to be addressed through policy, communication, training and many other organizational aspects.”

Being inclusive of all workers means safety leaders need to ask themselves, “What do I need to consider when developing, communicating, enforcing and following up on safety protocols, and how will workers of diverse backgrounds respond?” Vargas-Malpica said.

“One consideration is how you’ll deliver safety training,” Marin said. “For example, the use of high-tech mediums might appeal to more tech-savvy employees but alienate some workers who have less experience or confidence in those platforms. A company may have appropriate training content, but if they don’t have the right mechanism for delivering it to employees so they can access and understand it, it will fail.”

In the end, Marin said, “A systems approach encourages the organization to adapt policies, procedures and programs to the different needs of the worker population, which requires resources and people to bring it to fruition.”

Vargas-Malpica suggests the creation of a think tank involving a cross-section of colleagues coming together to assist employees of diverse backgrounds.

“Members of the human resources, managerial and training teams need to look at overall worker needs and differences and address any obstacles that may be present to help their employees succeed and ensure that they don’t get injured,” Vargas-Malpica said. “In the event that an injury occurs, however, asking questions will help managers better understand what part of the system fell through for that worker—did the vendor not supply the right products, did the worker not understand the requirements, were policies inconsistent, etc.?”

“One interesting example of this involves personal protective equipment for female contractors,” Marin said. “PPE was previously only designed for men, but women are built differently. Thanks to manufacturers’ willingness, there’s now PPE designed for women’s bodies and even PPE available for pregnant women. This development reflects an understanding of the broad needs of a diverse workforce to do their job safely.”

A paradigm shift

“While it’s a process that’s taken a lot of years to materialize, companies are increasingly understanding that it’s important to embrace diversity,” Marin said. “It’s not about having a safety program for every single person in their workplace, but about understanding that people bring their backgrounds and everything they are to the workplace and that this should be welcomed. It’s a journey for companies that demands resources, but it will bring medium- and long-term benefits to companies in terms of the strong worker satisfaction and positive organizational climates they foster.”

“Diversity and systems thinking aren’t just slogans; there are expenses that come with making it happen effectively,” Vargas-Malpica said. “Instead of budgeting for medical bills, penalties, insurance premium hikes and the fallout of damage to the company’s reputation in the marketplace as a result of the workplace injuries their employees sustain, companies of all sizes should invest in working more successfully with a diverse employee population. For anyone running a company, it’s about having and communicating a clear vision when approaching diversity. Opening the channels of communication and the possibilities as to how we can all work and interact with each other more successfully makes a huge difference.”

“Diversity is here,” Marin said. “Companies need to take advantage of it by identifying gaps in the way they address diversity, being more inclusive of different perspectives and reducing inequality in the workplace.”

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