Safety Trends

Report Addresses Overlapping Injury Vulnerabilities

ASSE and NIOSH say not enough data is collected on subsets of workers that fall into multiple at-risk groups and need targeted safety interventions.
By: | May 15, 2015

Hispanic immigrants accounted for about 20 percent of the construction workforce in the U.S. during 2013.

They were the “only racial/ethnic group with an increase in the number of workplace fatalities,” according to a new report by the American Association of Safety Engineers (ASSE) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

As the number of immigrant workers in the construction industry grows, so does the number of occupational injuries, primarily among those under 25 years old.

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Why is this group facing higher rates of injury? Why hasn’t their exposure been mitigated?

A joint presentation by ASSE and NIOSH identified a key roadblock in designing and implementing safety interventions for the particular group of at-risk workers. Namely, lack of data that explores overlap of high-risk populations.

In its report “Overlapping Vulnerabilities: the Occupational Health and Safety of Young Immigrant Workers in Small Construction Firms,” ASSE and NIOSH analyzed the risk factors that place young Hispanic workers (under age 25) employed by small construction firms at increased risk.

Each of these groups – young workers, immigrant workers, and workers in small businesses – face increased risk for work-related injury and illness, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not collect specific data on the number of workers that fall into multiple buckets.

ASSE and NIOSH sought to create a conceptual model for examining areas of overlap, but pointed out that there is “nothing magic” about the groups chosen as a focus in this report. They plan to conduct further research addressing other at-risk groups in different industries.

“Data is not collected on these vulnerable populations in a way we think they should be,” said Christine Branche, the principal associate director of NIOSH and director of the Office of Construction Safety and Health. “This report invites organizations to work together in ways we haven’t before.” She and ASSE president Patricia Ennis presented the report at The National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on May 6. They highlighted the need for partnerships between ASSE and NIOSH, employers (especially small businesses) and other safety organizations.

Many small business owners simply don’t know what laws apply to them, or how to comply within their limited means and resources.

Construction is inherently a high-risk industry, which claims more workplace fatalities than any other, accounting for 8.8 percent of workplace illness and injury among 16- to 24-year-olds in 2013. Young workers in particular lack experience on the job, and often hesitate to ask for help due to a desire to prove themselves. Add to that the language and cultural barriers between Hispanic workers and their English-speaking supervisors, and lack of safety training and resources chronically characteristic of small firms, and you get a perfect storm of safety risks.

The report includes some suggested interventions for reaching this subset of at-risk workers. NIOSH, for example, partnered with the Mexican government to “identify and address occupational health inequities among immigrant workers.” This includes greater outreach efforts in the U.S. to link the workers to health promotion resources and legal services.

Other efforts target small businesses through intermediary organizations like trade associations, chambers of commerce and unions. These organizations can better connect small businesses with the resources they need to become educated about OSH requirements and strategies to implement interventions. Many small business owners simply don’t know what laws apply to them, or how to comply within their limited means and resources. More importantly, they don’t know what resources are available to them to help navigate those issues.

The Labor and Occupational Health Program at the University of California, Berkeley, for example, developed a model training program that teaches small business owners how to develop and implement their own injury and illness prevention programs, according to the report. Some techniques to incorporate include more directed training like simulations and storytelling techniques, ASSE president Patricia Ennis said during the presentation. These can help to overcome language barriers and more clearly demonstrate key technical skills, which are critical in dangerous construction jobs.

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Safety certification programs for vulnerable workers can also be touted as a competitive advantage, since many larger employers require a certain level of safety training as a condition of employment. If smaller employers adopt this tactic, it can be an incentive for workers to receive training before they even show up to work.

Ultimately, any development of targeted interventions depends on the collection of the appropriate data. ASSE and NIOSH conclude their report by emphasizing the need to analyze existing data to identify overlapping at-risk groups, as well as to add data fields to make sure those subsets are captured more clearly.

Both NIOSH’s Branche and ASSE’s Ennis stressed that the key to improving safety programs and culture comes down to collaboration and communication between employers and safety organizations so that data can be turned into action.

Katie Dwyer is a freelance editor and writer based out of Philadelphia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]