Diversity's impact on workplace safety

American Society of Safety Engineers’ (ASSE) Practice Specialty Administrator Linda Tapp, ALCM, CSP, of Cherry Hill, NJ, recently pointed out how, with the workforce being more diverse than ever, it is important for facility managers to be aware and take actions to help provide a safe workplace for everyone—regardless of their age, language, body shape, or size. Tapp noted that today there are more women workers, workers with English as a second language, and older workers than ever before. The safety and health of a diverse workforce can be maintained through awareness and education about the different risks and needs of various groups, injuries, and illnesses.

A way to accommodate today’s diverse workforces is by applying good ergonomic principles. “Ergonomics is the science of improving employee performance and well being in relation to job tasks, equipment, and the environment,” Tapp says. “Ergonomics is a continuous improvement effort to design the workplace for what people do well and to design against what people don’t do well. The goal of workplace ergonomics is to minimize the effects of workplace stressors and adapt jobs to meet worker needs.

“Equipment should be designed to optimize human efficiency and reduce musculoskeletal strain,” Tapp continues. “By applying good ergonomic principles, employers can reduce injury rates, contain worker’s compensation costs, increase productivity, and improve product quality.”

As for the diverse workforce, Tapp provides tips on how to increase on-the-job safety for the young, the old, for those with language differences, for the larger workforce, and for pregnant workers. She notes that young workers are usually very eager to learn and to try new things, but their lack of experience can lead to injuries that could stay with them for a lifetime.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), every year approximately 100,000 teens aged 15 to 17 visit emergency rooms for work-related injuries. This means that approximately 42% of 16 and 17-year-old teens are in the labor force at any one time. Additionally, 80% of teens are employed at some time before they leave school.

“To decrease the chances of teen workers getting injured on the job, there are several things employers can do. First, interactions with supervisors can be increased so the supervisor can observe the teen working and then make corrections when work is not done safely,” Tapp says. “Instructions should be “hands-on” and procedures should be repeated. The more often and the more ways the employee hears something, the better. There should be a greater use of written procedures and checklists.”

As Americans get older, so does the workforce. In 2004, the number of workers aged 55 and older was 15.6% or about 23 million workers. However, statistics show that injury rates are higher for younger workers than older workers.

“Research studies have shown that as people get older they lose some of their strength and cardiovascular capacity, yet they do not experience a greater number of musculoskeletal disorders,” Tapp says. “But, if the older worker gets hurt, medical costs can be higher due to other factors. Fortunately, many of the changes related to aging can be prevented or delayed. Much of what we once thought normal for an aging person is now being disputed.”

As for language differences in the workplace, in 2000 and 2001, while overall workplace fatalities were falling, deaths among Hispanic workers were rising – by 12% in 2000 and 10% in 2001, mostly in the service and agricultural industries. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) data shows that about 25% of the fatalities they investigate are in some way related to language or cultural barriers.

Another problem area is illiteracy. There are many native born and immigrant workers who cannot read English or their native language. So, simply translating safety training materials and safety signs into other languages doesn’t always work, Tapp says.

As for larger workers, Tapp notes that 65% of Americans are overweight or obese. “Obesity can have serious effects for companies such as greater insurance costs due to associated conditions such as Type 2 diabetes, which can also lead to degenerative diseases of the hips, knees, and spine,” Tapp says. “Obesity can also have an effect on workplace safety. Personal protective equipment (PPE) to fit larger workers may not be available and in turn, they may not wear it properly or at all. Some equipment, like fall protection and ladders, may have weight limits.”

There are about one million working pregnant women at any one time. Pregnancy changes balance, reach distance, and lifting. “Additionally, hormonal changes that occur with pregnancy effect ligaments and joints which can cause postural problems, backache, and impairment of dexterity, agility, coordination, and balance,” Tapp notes. “For pregnant women, employers can assign less physical tasks, restrict lifting, adjust work and breaks, and vary the employee’s tasks if possible.”

By implementing good workplace design principles and programs to help older workers, younger workers, overweight workers, non-English speakers, and women workers, we are not only making the workplace safer for these diverse populations but for all employees as well, Tapp says.