Workplaces in North America, including my native Canada, are changing thanks to the arrival of new immigrants. The influx of foreign workers is a wonderful thing. But it also creates unique safety challenges that I’d like to address.
The Immigration Wave in Canada
Immigration has had an enormous impact on Canada. The number of immigrants coming to Canada specifically to find work has increased almost 48% between 1993 and 2005. The trend is likely to continue for years. According to the U.N., Canada ranks third in projected net immigration between 2005 and 2050 behind only the U.S and Germany.
Many immigrants are highly skilled workers who’ve earned their highest educational degree from an institution outside of Canada. Skilled workers now comprise almost 60% of new permanent residents in Canada. However, largely due to inability to speak English, many of these immigrants end up serving as temporary foreign workers performing jobs in small physically demanding, non-union workplaces. In fact, 40% of recent immigrants to Canada are overqualified for the work they do.
Immigration and Workplace Safety
The immigrant worker’s unique situation presents challenges for safety professionals. According to the Institute for Work and Health (IWH), recent immigrants suffer a disproportionately high rate of injuries requiring medical attention:
- Male immigrant workers in Canada for five years or less are twice as likely to suffer a work-related injury requiring medical attention than workers born in Canada; and
- 90% of all work related injuries suffered by recent immigrants require medical attention as compared to 65% for workers born in Canada;
Why Immigrants Are More Vulnerable
Why are immigrants so vulnerable?
Lack of Experience. A big reason for immigrants’ vulnerability is their lack of experience. The good news is that the danger fades over time. Thus, while documenting the risk of immigrants in their first five years, the IWH study cited above also notes that the injury rate of immigrants in Canada from six to 10 years is actually lower than the rate for native Canadian workers.
Nature of Jobs. Immigrants are also likely to work in more hazardous occupations. The fact that they come to Canada to find work makes them more willing to do the jobs that Canadian-born workers might tend to avoid.
Greater Passivity to Danger. Canadian OHS laws guarantee workers the right to receive safety training and refuse dangerous work. But because of the financial and psychological stresses associated with resettlement and assimilation, foreign workers are less likely to “rock the boat.” So immigrant workers are generally more reluctant to request training, report hazards or refuse unsafe work.
Lack of English Language Skills. Immigrant workers who can’t read or understand English may be unable to comprehend safe work practices and procedures, training and basic safety materials like Material Safety Data Sheets. Even though the MSDS must be translated into the main working language of the workplace, many employers are unaware of this requirement.
Protecting the Immigrant Worker
Employers need to play an active role in eliminating this vulnerability of immigrants. The first step is to recognize that immigrant workers have special needs especially with regard to language. If your workforce includes immigrants, you’ll need to translate your safety materials or use more visuals. For example, I know of a mushroom farm with workers of 30 different nationalities that uses safety signs purely in pictograms and makes written safety information available in five different languages.
Many of the provinces offer free resources to employers to help protect foreign workers. For example, WorkSafeBC provides general safety information in Punjabi, traditional Chinese and simplified Chinese and plans to add information in Spanish, Vietnamese, French and Korean.
Employers also need to tailor training to provide for more visual demonstrations and use of pictures. Supervisors must be instructed to be patient and encourage questions.
Canada needs skilled workers, especially in the western part of the country. The influx of immigrants thus represents an exciting opportunity for everyone. But it also poses safety risks. The awareness and capacity of employers to face these challenges will thus be essential to accrue the economic and cultural advantages that immigration offers.