Workplaces today are more diverse than ever, with employees hailing from different cultural backgrounds, abilities, and experiences. This diversity brings with it a wide array of skills and perspectives that can benefit organizations. However, it also presents unique challenges and opportunities when it comes to workplace safety and health. As the U.S. continues to diversify, organizations that embrace this shift will not only protect their employees more effectively but also benefit from a more engaged, satisfied, and innovative workforce. By prioritizing diversity, inclusion, and safety, organizations can create a safer, healthier, and more prosperous future for all.
Defining Workplace Diversity
Workplace diversity is the term used for a workplace composed of individuals with a broad spectrum of characteristics, including race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, age, physical ability, and more.
Fiona Macfarlane co-author of The CICA’s Risk Oversight and Governance Board’s Diversity Briefing: Questions for Directors to Ask stated, “while many documented examples of diversity focus on race and gender, the concept of diversity is broader and encompasses factors including age, culture, personality, skill, training, educational background and life experience,” she notes “The influence of a variety of perspectives and viewpoints can contribute to flexibility and creativity within organizations, which can help them thrive in a complex and competitive global economy.”
Diversity should not be confused with equity or inclusion. Although often intertwined, equity is creating fair access to opportunity, advancement, and treatment for everyone. Inclusion involves creating an environment where all employees feel welcome, respected, and appreciated for who they are.
The Evolving Workforce
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the workforce is becoming increasingly diverse. In 2019, a historical shift occurred, with most new working-age hires belonging to people of color. Women also emerged as the majority in the workforce, holding 109,000 more jobs than men. These trends are set to continue as the nation’s diversity deepens.
Despite these demographic shifts, the field of health and safety remains significantly less diverse. It is a paradox that many industries, such as manufacturing, construction, and food processing, employ a substantial number of minority workers, yet the majority of safety managers are white and male.
The Safety Gap and Disparities
Diversity, inclusion, and safety at work are all intertwined. Research indicates that diversity among employees directly influences safety performance. Unfortunately, this impact is not always positive. Studies reveal that racial and ethnic minorities often experience more adverse safety outcomes compared to their white counterparts. Language differences, cultural disparities, religious distinctions, job security issues, and varying prior experiences all contribute to these discrepancies.
- High-Risk Jobs: Racial and ethnic minority workers are more likely to be employed in high-risk jobs compared to white workers.
- Injury Rates: The injury rate for foreign-born Hispanic workers is notably higher than for white non-Hispanic workers, suggesting a marked disparity in safety conditions and outcomes.
- Underreporting: Studies suggest that minority workers may be less likely to report unsafe conditions out of fear of losing their jobs, leading to potential underreporting of safety hazards.
- COVID-19 Impact: Non-white workers, particularly Black workers, were disproportionately affected by COVID. Black workers were more than twice as likely as white workers to have seen possible retaliation by their employer for expressing COVID concerns.
Psychological safety, as defined by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson, is “the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.” It plays a pivotal role in creating a safe, inclusive, and productive workplace. By enabling employees to express their true selves, including their race, ethnicity, gender, and identity, without fear of judgment, organizations can unleash their employees’ full potential.
Psychosocial risks refer to the potential exposure to psychological work-related hazards and the severity of the health effects they can cause. These hazards include factors such as poor communication, pressure, leadership, and organizational culture. When combined with DEI initiatives, psychological safety fosters a positive, open-minded, and high-performing workforce, ultimately reducing psychosocial risks and their adverse health effects.
Closing the Safety Gap
To address these disparities and improve workplace safety and health, organizations must prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion. This starts with creating awareness and understanding of how factors like racial discrimination, language barriers, and cultural differences affect training, safety adherence, and overall work experience.
Safety professionals and organizational leaders can take several proactive steps:
- Culturally Responsible Training: Develop training programs that consider the diverse backgrounds and experiences of employees.
- Develop Your Mission Statement: Create measurements and goals that can be put in place to measure the effectiveness of diversity efforts.
- Communicate Openly: Letting employees know that there are efforts being taken to create a more equitable workplace and asking for feedback is invaluable in reducing psychosocial risks.
- Promote Diversity in Leadership: Invest in recruiting, training, mentoring, and retaining diverse talent across all organizational levels.
To ensure workplace safety, employers must also consider the bigger picture by bridging the safety gap. Workspaces are often designed with certain privileged groups in mind, making it easy and well-managed for some employees, while posing a challenge for a more diverse workforce.
Properly fitted PPE
Personal protective equipment is not one-size-fits-all. To ensure employee safety, workplaces must provide PPE in various sizes, accommodating different heights and weights. Companies should accurately assess their needs and order accordingly, instead of purchasing bulk quantities of a limited size range. Besides the physical aspect, there’s an emotional side to fitting PPE. It is important to create a non-judgmental environment, emphasizing the significance of employees feeling comfortable and safe while using gear that fits correctly. Providing PPE that accounts for female body types and accommodates religious head coverings is equally important for the diverse workforce.
Language barriers can lead to workplace accidents, with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) attributing 25% of such accidents to these barriers. The United States, known for its diverse culture, does not have a legally mandated national language. With a workforce that speaks hundreds of languages, it’s important to communicate workplace rules, regulations, and procedures effectively. Job site leaders and managers must ensure that information is accessible to workers who are not fluent in English. Creating signage, placards, and training materials in multiple languages is crucial considering varying levels of literacy. Ensuring language accessibility not only aligns with best practices, but also has legal implications. When workers’ languages are respected, they are more likely to ask questions and seek guidance, fostering a safer environment.
Accounting for Different Learning Styles
The workforce consists of individuals with diverse learning styles and backgrounds, including those with learning disabilities. Providing training materials in various formats helps ensure that all employees can access essential safety information. Additionally, considering employees who are hard of hearing or visually impaired is crucial in providing accessible information.
A strong team ethos is crucial for maintaining workplace safety. A cohesive team that supports each other can make all the difference between safety and catastrophe. Exclusion, harassment, or intimidation can cause anxiety and fear among employees, which can compromise safety. On the other hand, an inclusive environment fosters open communication, encourages honesty, and ensures that every voice is heard. It is important to recognize and appreciate differences, especially for those who may be the only woman, person of color, or young individual in the team. Understanding how these differences require different safety considerations is essential for building an inclusive and safe work environment.
Accessibility to Supervisors
An inclusive workplace fosters a sense of belonging and encourages employees to seek clarification and instruction when necessary, contributing to overall job site safety. To maintain a safe workplace, it is vital for all workers to have equal access to supervisors for discussing safety concerns. Establishing clear protocols for reporting safety violations and enforcing anti-retaliation policies are essential steps to make every worker comfortable with notifying supervisors when necessary.
The Interconnectedness of Diversity, Inclusion, and Safety
In addition to the fundamental moral imperative, embracing diversity, inclusion and safety within an organization can have a transformative impact. By fostering an inclusive environment, organizations can address work-related stress, improve employee health and satisfaction, enhance retention, support workers with disabilities, and reduce workplace harassment and discrimination. The path to achieving these benefits involves executive leadership commitment, systematic top-down approaches, performance measurement, effective education and training, and transparent communication.
Ready to elevate your workforce’s health? Partner with NMS Health for your occupational health screenings. With NMS Health you are not just identifying, intervening, and preventing future illness, you’re investing in a safer, healthier future for your team. Get started today!