Overlapping VulnerabilitiesPosted on by
Not all workers have the same risk of being injured at work, even when they are in the same industry or have the same occupation. Different factors can make some workers more vulnerable than others to workplace illness or injury. These include social dynamics, such as age, race, class, and gender; economic trends, such as growth of the temporary workforce; and organizational factors, such as business size.
The term “occupational health disparities” refers to increased rates of work-related illness and injuries in particular vulnerable populations. A growing body of research explores how a particular characteristic—such as being an immigrant/foreign-born worker, a worker under the age of 25, or an employee of a small business—can increase an individual’s risk for workplace injury or illness, and it suggests effective ways to improve the safety and health of these workers.
The Hispanic population in the United States has grown substantially in recent years. Currently, more than 50 million Hispanics live in this country, comprising roughly 16% of the total U.S. population and about 14% of the total U.S. workforce. One high-risk industry with a high concentration of Hispanic immigrant workers is construction. In 2013, Hispanic immigrants accounted for approximately 20% (1,798,192) of the construction workforce (9,106,227) in the United States and 75% of all Hispanics (2,379,323) working in this industry were immigrants [U.S. Census Bureau 2014b]. Young Hispanic immigrants are more likely to work for a very small business than are other racial and ethnic groups that make up much of the construction workforce.
To better understand the safety and health challenges faced by young Hispanic immigrants employed by small construction businesses, the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) developed the report, “Overlapping Vulnerabilities: The Occupational Safety and Health of Young Immigrant Workers in Small Construction Firms”. This report highlights the importance of understanding how the vulnerabilities for occupational injury associated with being a Hispanic immigrant, young worker, and employee of a small business may overlap, and how these different vulnerabilities may manifest themselves, interact with, and build on one another in the lived experience of individual workers. These are not the only vulnerable groups that warrant attention, but they demonstrate how overlapping vulnerabilities may be associated with increased risk for being injured or killed at work.
For example, on the basis of culture and language, a Hispanic immigrant worker who speaks only Spanish may be at increased risk for injury on the job because of difficulties in communicating with a supervisor who only speaks English. On the basis of age, a young worker may be at increased risk from lack of experience in recognizing a hazard. On the basis of corporate resources, someone who works for a small business may not have access to formal, institutional safety training, unlike someone who works for a larger company. Each of these vulnerabilities, alone, increases the worker’s risk, but then the risk is compounded when the same individual has two or more of these characteristics. For example, a Hispanic man or woman working for a small construction company not only is likely to face a language barrier, but also is likely not to have a safety professional on hand to identify and correct hazards routinely. Understanding the interaction of these overlapping factors, and addressing them accordingly, is likely to have greater impact than addressing them in isolation or addressing one but not another.
Understanding and addressing overlapping vulnerabilities requires more work in three domains: researching overlapping vulnerabilities, developing and refining interventions, and building sustainable efforts. Specific recommendations from the report include the following:
- Research is needed to understand how different vulnerabilities may overlap and interact with one another. These research needs could be met by examining existing data sets to identify groups of workers belonging to more than one vulnerable population and expanding efforts that focus on one vulnerability to consider the potential overlap with other vulnerabilities (such as immigration, age, size of employer, and work arrangement) as more than just alternate explanations of effects or confounding factors to control for.
- Interventions for a particular group should be tailored to address barriers for all relevant vulnerabilities that workers face. Intervention elements might include culturally tailoring safety certifications and training programs, increasing awareness among employers of the increased risks of occupational injury and illness among the vulnerable populations they employ, and assisting small employers with basic workplace safety and health activities.
- Effective and sustainable intervention efforts should include professionals and institutions who work within each of the relevant communities of vulnerable workers working together, integrating OSH into current activities, and conducting data-driven evaluations of intervention efforts.
There is a growing effort to reach workers at risk, which ASSE is coordinating. You can join the conversation at www.asse.org/workersatrisk. Please consider joining the outreach effort if your organization can reach small construction businesses that employ Hispanic immigrants.
For more information from NIOSH visit the following websites:
Deborah Hornback, MS; Thomas Cunningham, PhD; and Rebecca J. Guerin, MA
Ms. Hornback is a health communications specialist in the NIOSH Education and Information Division.
Dr. Cunningham is a behavioral scientist in the NIOSH Education and Information Division and the coordinator for the NIOSH Small Business Assistance and Outreach Program.
Ms. Guerin is a health communication specialist with the NIOSH, Education and Information Division.