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Lost in translation: Communicating safety

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SAN DIEGO—Research evaluating the effectiveness of safety training programs for Hispanic and foreign-born workers remains scarce while "generic" educational materials often fall short, speakers told the National Safety Council.

Consideration of foreign-born workers' specific ethnic and cultural sensitivities could help reduce the high number of workplace hazards and injuries faced by the growing number of workers whose English skills are limited, speakers also told attendees at the safety organization's 94th Annual Congress & Expo in San Diego earlier this month.

Foreign-born workers comprised 14% of the U.S. civilian workforce in 2003, said Susan M. Smith, a professor of safety and public health at the University of Tennessee and director of the university's Safety Center.

Hispanics accounted for nearly half—48%—of the foreign-born workers in 2003; Asians accounted for 22%; and white, non-Hispanics accounted for 20%, Ms. Smith said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. population, which has surpassed 300 million, is growing at the rate of one international migrant every 24 seconds with foreign-born workers concentrated mostly in construction, labor maintenance and transportation jobs, where injuries are more likely, Ms. Smith said.

According the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2005 there were 5,702 fatal work-related injuries nationwide. While the overall number declined vs. 2004, the number of Hispanic worker deaths in 2005 hit a record 917—625 of the total being foreign-born and 292 being native-born.

There is a great need for information about what safety training might be most effective for foreign-born and limited-English speaking workers because language skills, educational levels, cultural influences and work experiences in their native countries are likely to shape their absorption of safety lessons, Ms. Smith said.

Because of cultural differences and practices in their home countries, some foreign-born workers, for example, are more eager to comply with an employer's desire for certain behavior while other groups of workers are more autonomous, Ms. Smith said.

How safety training is presented to groups with such differences is therefore likely to impact how well they comply, she added.

Yet there is a "huge hole" in research examining what training methods work best for foreign-born workers while financial support for such research is lacking, Ms. Smith said.

Meanwhile, generic, one-size-fits-all safety training materials for all workers across all industries is likely to fall short, Ms. Smith added.

"There really needs to be a substantial amount of real research," Ms. Smith said. "The assumption that everybody is going to sit down and learn how to be safe off of a CD-ROM—there is no research out there that shows that is going to work. But there is no research that shows absolutely it won't work because there have been very few controlled studies."

Employers, meanwhile, should not assume that all workers who share a common foreign language, such as Spanish, also share common values, cultural norms and abilities to absorb safety lessons, Ms. Smith added.

"You can work in the food distribution industry and have a whole bunch of workers from Guatemala and a whole bunch of workers from Mexico and a whole bunch from Honduras," Ms. Smith elaborated. "That does not mean all those people have the same culture, the same rules and the same way to do things."

Helping foreign-born workers assimilate so that they understand an employer's expectations for safe behavior may not come so easy and isn't always going to "happen overnight, not by any stretch of the imagination," added Joseph P. Latona, senior vp, risk consulting for Lockton Cos. Inc. in Miramar, Fla.

The challenge for employers can also change.

In South Florida's hospitality industry, for example, a predominantly black workforce has been replaced by Hispanics who are now being replaced by Haitians with a lifestyle, culture and language that differs markedly from the predecessor groups, Mr. Latona said.

So it's paramount that employers understand the specific population they are trying to make safer, Mr. Latona said.

"It's critical that we understand the population that we are dealing with and the best thing to do is to sit down and talk (with them) and find out where they are coming from, what they are used to and what they have experienced," Mr. Latona said.