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The New Face of Occupational Health and Safety: Why Diversity, Inclusion and Human Rights is our Business!

Why bother? Why does it matter?

Depending on location, chances are that anyone over forty grew up and started work in an environment where they never heard words like diversity and inclusion. Those words are in widespread use today and asking why can produce informative answers. Why is it important for businesses to focus on building a diverse and inclusive workforce when it may have not been an area of consideration before? One of the arguments in favor is a matter of simple ethics – we should treat people with respect in addition to ensuring their health and wellbeing is of the utmost priority.

But that’s only a partial answer. We have obligations to several stakeholders, including our shareholders, consumers, or potential clients. Today’s needs and wants in the market landscape seem to be increasingly entwined with expectations that those products and services offered from organisations be created and consumed with minimal harm, damage, or social impact.

The term “Worker Welfare” is a term that is becoming more and more common in today’s business world, a term that implies that an organization’s responsibility towards its employees and contractors lays beyond the traditional safety monitoring that takes place at the worksite.

Welfare is an area which is now often considered part and parcel of an occupational health and safety professionals’ responsibilities to monitor and improve upon.

Further to the welfare side of things, recruiting ethically by nurturing diversity and inclusiveness is important for reasons that go beyond showing respect for people. One of those reasons is groupthink.

Worker Welfare and Occupational Safety

Groupthink – the hidden danger

Imagine you have a one-person department. It’s very successful. That success means the department must grow. The most successful teams aren’t built from clones. Look at them closely and you’ll see that every member is different. Different backgrounds, different upbringings, different ways of looking at the world. And sometimes they clash. Of course they do – they all have different ways of achieving the same end. But what comes out of those clashes is consensus. As you develop your team, you don’t want people who think the way others in the team think. The best results come from hiring people who think differently.

In health and safety, we are encouraged to develop safety as a keystone habit within organizations, to develop cultures of care where individuals feel responsible for their own safety as well as the safety of their colleagues. As a result, many organizations now set up safety or welfare committees that support an organization towards achieving that culture.

They rely on different individuals within the workplace to become actively involved with decisions around Welfare and Occupational health. On occasion and when assessing root causes for welfare related issues within an establishment, safety practitioners may touch upon areas that involve discrimination, inclusion or diversity issues and most definitely require the experience and skill sets to deal with such scenarios and come up with well thought-out solutions.

And that’s the point. If the whole team thinks the same way, they miss things. Yes, they’ll do a job – but they’ll only understand the demands and the needs of people who think like they do. There’ll be a whole swathe of problems they can’t solve. Solutions they don’t understand. Customers they can’t reach.

It isn’t just about rights

The UN says that everyone has the right to be treated equally and with respect. But that isn’t the only reason to consider diversity and inclusivity. It isn’t even the most important reason. Here’s a list of the reasons for discrimination that are banned in many countries:

·  age

·  disability

·  gender reassignment

·  marriage and civil partnership

·  pregnancy and maternity

·  race

·  religion or belief

·  sex

·  sexual orientation

In addition to assessing and controlling risk, understanding compliance requirements by developing and maintaining legal registers is a responsibility undertaken by health and safety professionals in many organizations. As a result, they need to understand current regulations and the implications of not implementing such requirements. In an increasing number of places, you will be in trouble with the law if you discriminate against someone on any of those grounds.

But don’t think just about staying out of court. What you’ll find is that companies’ work performance improves when they have a diverse, inclusive workforce. Working practices get better, people learn how to get on with others, and the most amazing lessons about how to do things are passed on from one worker to another.

Risk Assessment

It’s possible to go too far. There are forms of disability that mean that some jobs are beyond some people’s physical ability to complete. Hiring a person with an inappropriate disability for that job does no-one any favors – so all your jobs should have an associated risk assessment that must objectively and ethically assess the individual’s capability to perform the task. But the important words in that sentence are: for that job. Don’t use disability as a form of discrimination.

Avoid tokenism

From the 1920s until the beginning of the 1970s, most companies of any size had switchboards that looked like small telephone exchanges. Blind people worked those exchanges extremely well, largely because they weren’t subject to visual distractions. And from the mid-1940s on, a lot of European countries as well as America and Canada experienced a spike in the number of blind people. They had been blinded on the battlefield, or on board a bombed ship, or in a shot-up aircraft. Hiring them to work those switchboards wasn’t tokenism – those blind switchboard operators went home each evening with the satisfaction that, handicapped though they were, they had still just completed a day in which they had demonstrated their value to society. But tokenism can be a problem when companies decide that they are going to set a quota. ‘Not less than x% of our employees must be classified as disabled in some way.’ What rapidly happens then is that x%, instead of being the minimum, becomes the target. You said you’d hire twenty-eight people who were disabled, female, from a religious minority, or had decided that their gender was not the one they were registered with at birth. And now you have twenty-eight – so that’s it. Job done. What’s the next thing to focus on?

Tokenism in the workplace can have a significant effect on the psychosocial safety climate (PSC) within a workplace, an area which if ignored, could have severe implication on overall wellbeing.

Psychosocial safety climate (PSC) is the term used to describe management practices and communication and participation systems that protect workers’ mental health and safety. An area often addressed by occupational health and safety practitioners. Significant research has shown that addressing psychosocial hazards by considering the PSC and improving three psychological health outcomes: depression, psychological distress, and engagement may be effective in reducing sickness absence and presenteeism.

Leaders make a difference. Organizations that wish to create a positive climate focused on psychosocial safety need to think about their leaders. Safety practitioners who understand the effects of organizational stressors such as tokenism, workplace ethics, human rights or groupthink can support business leaders make their employees feel supported and cared for.

It is these leaders who can intern educate employees on all of the company’s policies and programs related to psychological health, stress, and the work environment. Thus, companies need to invest in helping leaders learn psychosocial safety behaviors and as result, knowing about the implications of diversity, inclusion and human rights becomes a significant part of the health and safety business.


March 9, 2022


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