Depending on your industry, you may have a workplace full of workers with unique vulnerabilities to occupational safety and health hazards.
Safety and health vulnerabilities encompass several types of employees and employment types—young, old, and immigrant workers, as well as contingent or temporary workers. It’s critical for safety professionals to understand the unique hazards faced by each of these groups in order to take steps to protect them on the job.
Young, inexperienced workers can lack job skills and knowledge about workplace hazards or how to avoid them. Their limited prior work experience and a lack of safety training contribute to well-documented high injury rates.
To help employers of young workers, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) developed a series of “8 Core Competencies,” occupational safety and health skills young workers can be taught on their first jobs and take with them to other employers and industries. The 8 Core Competencies are:
- Recognize that while work has benefits, all workers can be injured, become sick, or even be killed on the job—workers must know how workplace risks can affect their lives and their families;
- Recognize that work-related injuries and illnesses are predictable and can be prevented;
- Identify hazards at work, evaluate the risks, and learn how to predict ways workers can be injured or made sick;
- Recognize how to prevent injury and illness—describe the best ways to address workplace hazards and apply these concepts to specific workplace problems;
- Identify emergencies at work and decide on the best ways to address them;
- Recognize employer and worker rights and responsibilities that play a role in safe and healthy work;
- Find resources that help keep workers safe and healthy on the job; and
- Demonstrate how workers can communicate with others—including people in authority roles—to ask questions or report problems or concerns when they feel unsafe or threatened.
NIOSH has additional recommendations if you have young workers in your workplace:
- Avoid making assumptions about what young workers know; what may be obvious to you may not be to a teen or young adult;
- Avoid using industry jargon, and provide safety training using words that teens can understand;
- Be sure teens know how to use any necessary personal protective equipment (PPE);
- Encourage them to ask questions—they may be too embarrassed or uncomfortable to ask questions;
- Give clear instructions for each work task, especially unfamiliar ones;
- Point out possible workplace hazards and appropriate safety precautions;
- Prepare teens for emergencies, such as fires and violent or unexpected, dangerous situations; and
- Supervise teens closely, immediately correcting any issues or risky behaviors.
If you have young workers in your workplace, you must ensure they understand the following:
- Be mindful of the space around you—look out for people, boxes, forklifts, and moving objects in your work area that could hit you or fall on you;
- Follow all warning labels and signs on equipment and materials in the workplace;
- Head protection may be needed in storage areas to protect from being struck by a falling box or product that may be dislodged from overhead storage;
- Hearing protection may be required around noisy equipment;
- Stack materials carefully so that they won’t slide or fall; and
- Walk only in designated areas.
Older workers have more advanced job skills and thorough knowledge of both safety hazards and occupational safety and health measures. Experience conveys some benefits. However, chronic health conditions that become more common with age may make older workers more susceptible to injury or illness.
A study of workers in the Maine fishing industry found that both younger and aging workers were more likely to suffer contusions, sprains, and strains than middle-aged workers. However, aging and middle-aged workers were more likely to experience bone fractures. Aging workers suffered amputations more often than either middle-aged or younger workers. Aging workers also suffered more musculoskeletal disorders than middle-aged and younger workers.
Older workers with certain chronic health conditions are more susceptible to heat stress. Cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, and obesity can hinder workers’ ability to regulate body temperature or make them more susceptible to dehydration.
In any industry, you may need to make accommodations and redesign elements of the job or the workplace. Steps you can take might include:
- Increasing light levels to accommodate normal changes in vision;
- Minimizing workplace background noise and using other or redundant methods of communication to compensate for hearing loss;
- Providing text warnings for hazards in addition to symbols with which older workers may be unfamiliar; and
- Providing refresher safety training and training for older workers in newly adopted administrative and engineering controls or newly available PPE.
Immigrant workers may come to the United States to take a job in an unfamiliar industry. Immigrant workers also often take jobs in hazardous industries, such as agriculture or construction. They may be unaccustomed to U.S. work practices and unfamiliar with the hazards they encounter on the job. They often have little or no prior safety training.
Barriers to safety that can make immigrant workers vulnerable include:
- Receiving no safety training or receiving poor quality training;
- Speaking a different language than their supervisors and many of their coworkers do;
- Cultural differences that lead them to value hard work over their own safety and health; and
- Failing to report injuries for fear of retaliation.
If you employ a significant number of immigrant workers, you can take steps to ensure they are properly trained:
- Be comprehensive—they may have limited or no experience—and assume they have no occupational safety and health knowledge;
- Provide training and educational materials appropriate for their language skills and literacy levels, field testing training, and handouts before a full rollout to your entire workforce;
- Embrace cultural diversity, but also be mindful of differing levels of acculturation;
- Employ a variety of methods for providing safety materials, such as audiovisual, face-to-face, verbal communication, and hands-on training;
- Enlist peers as safety trainers; and
- Ensure safety training reflects the reality of the workers’ assigned tasks.
Above all, engage immigrant workers in safety training, emphasizing the importance of performing work in a safe manner.
Nonstandard, Precarious Work
Precarious employment—characterized by few benefits, hazardous conditions, limited opportunities for workplace participation or advancement, and lower wages—is becoming a problem for workers across all economic sectors.
Differences in training and fear of job loss may lead to increased rates of fatal and nonfatal injuries among contingent workers. Known hazards for temporary workers include road traffic, interaction with the public, use of household cleaning agents, and intensive keyboard activity at poorly arranged workstations.
Temporary workers may not receive adequate safety and health training or explanations of their duties from either the staffing agency or host employer. Temporary workers are more vulnerable to workplace safety and health hazards, as they can be placed in a variety of jobs, including the most hazardous ones.
Both host employers and staffing agencies have roles in complying with workplace health and safety requirements and share responsibility for ensuring worker safety and health.
Each employer should consider the hazards it is in a position to prevent. For example, a staffing agency might provide its employees with general safety and health training, while the host employer would provide specific training tailored to its particular workplace equipment and hazards.
A temporary labor contract is no shield from Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) citations and penalties. In May 2017, the agency inspected an automobile auction house after five people were struck by a sport utility vehicle and died as a result of their injuries. OSHA cited both the host employer and staffing agency but sought penalties totaling $267,081 from the host employer but only $12,675 from the staffing agency.
OSHA sometimes may charge a staffing agency alone or cite both host employers and staffing agencies for safety and health violations. Just in the past year, the agency has:
- Cited a farm labor supplier for failing to protect employees working in excessive heat after a farmworker succumbed to apparent heat-related symptoms while working in a cornfield near Grand Island, Nebraska; and
- Cited both a construction company and its staffing agency after a temporary employee installing sewer lines suffered a fatal injury in a trench collapse and imposed a much higher penalty on the host employer than the staffing agency.
Realities of Worker Safety, Health Vulnerabilities
The American workforce will only continue to become increasingly diverse, and one-size-fits-all safety management is no longer sufficient. Safety professionals must understand the particular vulnerabilities of their workforce and take steps to ensure that training, protective measures, and safety communications reach all employees.