Take a good look around your plant or facility. If yours is like most American workplaces these days, you're looking at a mini United Nations -- people from vastly different cultures, many who may have been born outside the U.S. You can observe the same phenomenon if you walk into your children's schools, or look around the waiting room at your doctor's office. A robust influx of newcomers to our shores is changing the American landscape, both at work and throughout our society.

It's an exciting development -- new people bring new ideas, new sounds, new friendships, new beliefs, and even new tastes (have you noticed the many ethnic foods on your grocery store shelves lately?). But as you strive to develop and implement a strong health, safety, and environmental program, the differences among these employees can sometimes be daunting. These differences can bring a range of attitudes, beliefs, and values that challenge, or even impede your HS&E efforts. In our experience, we've found that quite the opposite can be true: The diversity within your workforce can be harnessed to your advantage, with a stronger safety process, and a more unified workforce to show for it.

Essential to any effective safety initiative is a workforce that understands the risks, sees the steps management is taking, and comprehends its own responsibility in preventing accidents, injuries, and environmental incidents. Taken together, these things contribute to achieving a common vision. Whether that vision is identified as "zero accidents," "accident elimination," "no one hurt," etc. the point is the same. We've learned that visualizing and striving toward a common goal can be an enormously unifying experience for employees, especially those who have little else in common in terms of background and shared cultural ties.

The first step in turning cultural diversity into a tool to improve safety is a thorough cultural assessment. This is a step that necessarily precedes any safety or environmental program development. When your workers look and sound different from one another, use the assessment questionnaire to gain a deeper understanding of their backgrounds, values, and beliefs, and how these affect their work style. For example, through our experience we have learned that often, people who hail from some South American countries possess a degree of fatalism not typical of North Americans. Similarly, some Mediterranean and Mid-Eastern peoples exhibit a riskier approach to life and work -- one we might call "macho." Believing their safety is in the hands of God, they assign responsibility outside of themselves and may therefore ignore hazards. It's an attitude that can result in shortcuts that appear more "manly" than taking the slow, safe way. Depending on their cultural patterns, some workers may refuse help because it suggests weakness.

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