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Safety Across Cultures

Posted on by Michael Flynn, MA

As businesses become more global, safety professionals must develop and carry out work-based safety programs in cross-cultural settings. A recent article in Professional Safety, “Safety Across Cultures: Understanding the Challenges,” discusses the challenges of cross-cultural safety and health and offers suggestions on how to approach these growing responsibilities.

Occupational safety and health (OSH) professionals work both in companies that send safety professionals to oversee operations in a foreign country and for foreign companies who employ local safety personnel. Safety professionals must adjust their own approaches to safety, and that of their organizations, to effectively adapt to the global economy.

In safety and health, culture can be defined as a system of shared beliefs and behaviors that affects how workers from different ethnic and social groups perceive, understand, adapt to and address safety concerns at work. Examples of cultural factors that can affect safety at work are how:

  • a coworker and a boss understand safety and who is responsible for it;
  • subordinates, equals and superiors can appropriately interact with each other;
  • people say work is done and how work is actually done;
  • employees perceive work dangers relative to other risks they face in their daily lives;
  • employees adapt to workplace dangers; and
  • these understandings are similar or different for workers with different cultural backgrounds.

When working in different cultures, OSH professionals need to first recognize their own cultural bias and that of their coworkers. OSH professionals often focus on carrying out the technical aspects of the program in the same way they do in their home country to attempt to improve safety in new locations. This focus often ignores the need to adapt programs to local conditions. Safety professionals would benefit from seeking input on local context and meanings, and on the appropriateness of programs and initiatives.

For safety professionals working in their home cultures with foreign companies, it is important that they are able to appreciate and navigate the cultural differences inherent in their workplace interactions. Those in supervisory roles may find themselves as a cultural translator, positioned in between local employees and a foreign firm. In this position, they need to be particularly sensitive to their own cultural biases and those of their employees so they can effectively communicate these differences or barriers to the company with which they work.

The following steps provide a starting point for adapting multiple cultures into workplace safety and health.

Observe

  • How are ideas presented? Pay attention to tone, body language and metaphors.
  • How are decisions made, in or out of official settings?
  • Look for congruence or inconsistency between what people say and what they do.

Ask Questions

  • Ask questions about things that seem to be common sense. Assumptions are how most misunderstandings happen.
  • Ask questions more than once. Make questioning a normal part of interactions.
  • Ask for specific examples of positive and negative interactions. In the answer, listen for clues about:
    • employer-employee relations;
    • how conflict is addressed in this setting (e.g., directly, indirectly);
    • expectations and understandings of safety;
    • the priority of safety in relation to other company priorities.

Be Open

  • Be prepared to have your assumptions questioned.
  • Make sure colleagues feel comfortable communicating with you about cultural differences.
  • Be aware that power dynamics can impede communication, and may take time and concerted effort to overcome.

Cultural training for safety and health professionals will become increasingly important as the global economy grows and diversifies. Safety professionals who develop the ability to work effectively in cross-cultural settings will be better positioned to promote workers health, safety and well-being in the increasingly global economy . Have you faced challenges associated with culture in your OSH role? If so, please share your experiences below.

 

Michael Flynn, MA, is a Social Scientist in the NIOSH  Education and Information Division and Coordinates the  Occupational Health Equity Program.

 

Reference 

Flynn, M.A., Castellanos, E., Flores-Andrade, A. (2018). Safety across Cultures: Understanding the Challenges. Professional Safety 63(1): 28-32.. https://search.proquest.com/docview/1985541331?pq-origsite=gscholar

 

Posted on by Michael Flynn, MA

2 comments on “Safety Across Cultures”

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    For me, I can understand recognizing how an employee from different cultures perceives risk, relative to other risks in their environment will help with conveying the value of safety and health. However, this would benefit from two or three concrete examples of how these observations (form of ideas, decision making, and perceived inconsistency) have informed policy or communication and what cultural biases EHS professionals have needed to recognize in themselves.

    The article contains several examples. One example safety professionals need to be aware of different expectations of coworkers and leaders. A study of professionals across several countries discovered the concept of “team” differed significantly from one culture to the next, even when the subjects worked in the same company. In some cultures individuals expected their interaction with their work team members to consist only of meetings at work. In contrast, people from other cultures expected to have more social interactions outside work, where team members could share other aspects of their lives (Gibson & Zellmer-Bruhn, 2002). This example suggest that different cultural approaches to work can affect how team members:
     contribute to a group’s work;
     relate to one another;
     make sacrifices for and commit to the project and to one another;
     expect other group members and the team leader to behave;
     reward behaviors meeting cultural expectations; and
     correct members whose behavior is inconsistent with cultural expectations.

    The researchers concluded that to effectively work cross-culturally, a professional must understand the local perceptions and approaches to key concepts and core issues. This includes work, safety, and relationships with coworkers and supervisors (Gibson, Szkudlarek, & McDaniel, 2012).

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