January 17 is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which makes it a great time to celebrate diversity in your workplace. For safety’s sake, you need your employees to learn to respect each other’s differences so they can understand each other, communicate effectively, and work together safely.
Discuss all the ways employees can be diverse. For example, workers are diverse:
- By race—but keep in mind that members of the same race can be very different from one another;
- By gender—gender differences are particularly noticeable in jobs that traditionally have been all male or all female, but now increasingly include both sexes;
- By physical appearance—such as height, weight, and hair color;
- By age—age and generational differences are likely to be more noticeable as the number of older Americans in the workforce increases;
- By education—educational differences can affect the way different people approach the same job;
- By cultural background—this may reflect race or country of origin, but it may also reflect how we celebrate different holidays or what language is spoken at home; and
- By physical abilities—these take into account both special talents and special needs, including physical disabilities.
There’s no doubt that diversity can lead to challenges in the workplace, so make these points with your employees:
- Differences among people are OK. Keep in mind that being “different” doesn’t mean “better” or “worse”—it just means “different.”
- Coordinating different styles of working can be challenging because not everyone approaches a task in exactly the same way.
- Learning to communicate across cultural and language differences can also present difficulties. Clear and open communication is essential to working successfully in a diverse group.
- Developing flexibility is another important ingredient to dealing with diversity. It’s important not only to listen to new ideas, but also to implement different approaches.
- Finally, be willing to adapt to change. This includes both changes in the workforce itself and changes in the way we approach our daily tasks.
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Diversity also brings positive opportunities. Discuss the following points with your employees:
- A diverse workplace helps attract and retain high-quality people from a variety of backgrounds.
- Morale increases when everyone feels that he or she is welcome and appreciated, regardless of background.
- Productivity improves as morale increases.
- Accepting and encouraging diversity reduces discrimination and the risk of lawsuits.
- Decision making is improved when there is a diversity of approaches present in the workplace.
- Our organization’s profile and reputation in the marketplace improves when our workplace becomes known for encouraging diversity and treating all employees fairly.
Finally, give your employees practical steps for working safely and effectively in your diverse workforce. For example:
Learn co-workers’ names and use them.
- Don’t make assumptions about co-workers.
- Treat male and female co-workers equally.
- Avoid sexist comments and remarks.
- Don’t make assumptions about the personal identity or affiliation of any individual.
- Take advantage of life experiences and share them.
- Respect differences.
- Understand how a physically challenged person wants to contribute to the team. Don’t assume that a disability limits participation.
- Do not condone tasteless jokes or comments.
- Think inclusive, not exclusive.
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In addition to hazard identification, your workers have other safety responsibilities. Here are the “Top Ten”:
- Know and follow safe work procedures.
- Avoid obvious unsafe acts, such as running through the work area or tossing tools.
- Keep the work area clean and uncluttered. Keep aisles and stairways clear, clean up spills, properly dispose of flammable scrap, and take other steps to eliminate items or conditions that could create a hazard.
- Report accidents, injuries, illnesses, exposures to hazardous substances, and near-misses immediately.
- Report situations that don’t seem right even if you’re unsure they’re hazards. This is especially important if you’re working with hazardous chemicals; where symptoms that appear to be minor, like a headache or red skin, may be the first indicator of overexposure.
- Cooperate with internal inspections and job hazard analyses.
- Follow company safety rules. They combine government laws and regulations with the experience of many people in this company and this industry.
- Look for ways to make the job safer. Do your part to improve safety by voicing your observations and making suggestions.
- Participate in safety training. Apply what you learn and help co-workers when they’re unsure of what to do.
- Treat safety as one of your most important job responsibilities. Your job is not only to perform particular tasks and get particular results: It’s to do those things safely.
Why It Matters
- In today’s American workforce, nearly one-third of workers are minorities, nearly one-half are women, and more than 10 percent are aged 55 or older—so it’s already relatively diverse.
- By the year 2020, the percentage of minorities in the workforce is projected to increase by more than 40 percent, and the percentage of older workers is expected to go up as well.
- By the year 2050, nearly half of workers are expected to be minorities, and the percentage of workers over the age of 55 will increase to almost 20 percent.