Register Now
Download Brochure


Monday, October 5, 2015

Protecting Workers With Overlapping Vulnerabilities

© J Alcorn
ASSE recently spoke with Michael Flynn, assistant coordinator, Priority Populations and Health Disparities Program for NIOSH, about workers with overlapping vulnerabilities in the construction industry. Flynn is a presenter at ASSE’s upcoming Construction Symposium, Nov. 12-13, 2015, in New Orleans, LA. His general session, “Protecting Construction Workers With OverlappingVulnerabilities” is scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 12, from 1 to 2 p.m.

ASSE: Explain the concept of overlapping vulnerabilities as they relate to some construction industry workers.
Mike: Not all workers have the same risk of being injured at work, even when they are in the same industry or have the same job. Social dynamics such as race, class and gender; economic trends such as the growth of the temporary workforce; and organizational factors such as business size can all contribute to the greater vulnerability of some workers to workplace illness or injury than others. A growing body of research explores how a particular characteristic, such as being an immigrant, a young worker or an employee of a small business, can increase an individual’s risk for occupational injury or illness.
However, workers frequently belong to more than one of these vulnerable groups, as such, they embody the vulnerabilities associated with these characteristics, all at the same time. Practitioners and researchers often address these characteristics in isolation rather than in combination. The concept of overlapping vulnerabilities refers to the combination of risk factors that a worker may face by virtue of belonging to several vulnerable groups at the same time. By way of example, my presentation at ASSE’s symposium will focus on the combination of risk factors, or “overlapping vulnerabilities,” that young, immigrant workers in small construction firms may have, and the implications for safety professionals whose goal it is to help these communities. However, these are not the only vulnerable groups and similar analysis could be done exploring the overlap in other vulnerabilities such as temporary workers, recent hires or older workers.

ASSE: What are the major risks construction workers with overlapping vulnerabilities face?
Mike: Hispanic immigrants (individuals born in Latin America who currently live in the U.S.), small business employees of small businesses (firms with fewer than 20 employees), and young workers (<25 years old) are all at greater risk for workplace injuries in the construction industry than construction workers on whole. Each vulnerability has characteristics that add unique barriers to a worker’s OSH (for example, an immigrant worker’s fear of deportation for reporting unsafe conditions) or that intensify existing barriers to safety that are common for all workers (e.g., lack of training in small businesses due to financial constraints).
As these vulnerabilities are independently associated with additional risk of workplace injury or illness, the interaction between risk factors may create even more risk for groups experiencing multiple vulnerabilities than for those who have only one risk factor. However, more work is needed to clarify how these overlapping vulnerabilities interact and may intensify the risk for occupational injury and illness and how OSH professionals can effectively reduce these risks.  

ASSE: What steps can employers take to help protect these workers?
Mike: Employers should become more aware and seek assistance on how to address the increased risks of occupational injury and illness among the vulnerable populations they employ. Many employers are likely already aware of specific challenges such as language barriers or lack of access to training, but they may benefit from additional information about the risks associated with each vulnerability factor that may affect their workforce, as well as training on how to effectively communicate safety information. A growing body of proven interventions have been tailored to workers of different backgrounds. Employers could take advantage of these materials and incorporate them into the safety trainings.
Assisting small employers with basic workplace safety and health activities. Small employers need assistance to implement activities such as hazard recognition and control and writing safety plans in a manner that is both culturally and resource-appropriate for their workplaces.

ASSE: Should this topic be a concern for employers outside of the construction industry? If so, why?
Mike: The concept of overlapping vulnerabilities is applicable to all industries in that it simply suggests we need to look at which workers are at higher risk for injury and what overlap may exist among these populations. In addition, the model also works with vulnerabilities beyond immigrant, young workers and small business employees that are the focus of this presentation.

ASSE: What are some key takeaways attendees will gain from attending your general session?
Mike: Here are five:
  1. The need to look at the whole person and the various groups to which s/he may belong to when trying to identify and address the barriers to safety that this individual faces.
  2. The need for community and professional organizations to culturally tailor safety certifications and training programs, and deliver these trainings through resource-appropriate channels that work for small employers.
  3. While there are unique barriers related to each vulnerability, some of these barriers (e.g., difficulty raising safety concerns at work) are often shared by more than one group. Vulnerable workers would likely benefit from gaining not only basic OSH skills, such as the ability to identify hazards and understand how they can be controlled, but also leadership skills such as being able to problem solve and speak up in the workplace.
  4. Many professional organizations such as ASSE, academic institutions and community-based organizations have and continue to produce tailored interventions to address the barriers many workers face. More needs to be done but that should not prevent us from taking advantage of the resources that currently exist.
  5. ASSE is working with its members to address these issues. As a first step, they are working to better understand current OSH training practices relating to immigrant workers in construction.