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August 10, 2015

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Managing health and safety risks of migrant workers

Hyacinth Maduka Eze, Associate HSE/CITB Consultant with Safety Management Consultancy Ltd., UK, explores the effective management of health and safety risks for migrant workers.

When we consider the scope and complexity of the construction sector and the statistics relating to the number of incidents, accidents and ill health, it is clear that the effective management of health and safety risks for migrant workers (non-UK nationals) should be highlighted.

This is one of the main health and safety challenges facing the construction sector. Evidence has shown that a number of accidents and ill-health have occurred because of poor management of such risks by employers, especially in the construction sector where the nature of risk is very complex, with various activities going on, often at the same time.

According to Andrea Oates’s article of 30th April, 2008 ‘Keeping migrant workers in the safety advice loop’, as published in the Health and Safety at Work magazine, “Asked about the rise in injuries on construction sites last year, HSE Chief Inspector of construction Stephen Williams said that there was anecdotal evidence of more accidents involving workers from abroad. The lack of adequate training and instruction for migrants is an increasingly common factor in health and safety prosecutions”. The article also states: “When the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health surveyed food and drink manufacturers, half the respondents said their health and safety policies did not address how non-English-speaking employees were informed, instructed or trained in health and safety.”1

Some of the causal factors that could lead to unplanned or unwanted incidents involving migrants are language difficulties, lack of health and safety awareness, poor literacy levels, risk perceptions, cultural and religious differences, poorer skill sets, attitudes, level of supervision and pressure from managers, among others.

Employers that engage migrant workers need to ensure sufficient and suitable risk control measures, both preventive and remedial, are onsite and proportional to the risks posed by migrant workers. A suitable risk assessment of the individual migrant worker should be carried out to ascertain the level of risks faced by them. Failure to pay special attention to this set of workers leaves them more vulnerable to risks and invariably could become an accident waiting to happen. The HSE guidance document on protecting migrant workers also explains how to assess these issues.3

The outcome of individual risk assessments will enable a planned and good, safe system of work to be put in place, which will take care of individual circumstances. HSE has stated that, ‘migrant workers are a special case of the more general problems associated with managing health and safety of casual and temporary labour’. However, while there is not yet enough evidence that being a migrant worker is in itself a risk factor, it is unquestionable that new employees, especially the self-employed and agency workers, are generally more exposed to risk than others who have been in the workplace for a year and beyond.

Managing the health and safety risks of migrant workers starts by carrying out a risk assessment that takes into account the needs of each individual. It should be robust enough to deal with all risk factors and should be reviewed regularly to take on board any necessary changes. Prior to engaging migrant workers, it is essential that employers resolve some of the issues that could affect how the migrant can work safely.

Apart from the aforementioned risks faced, some functional skills such as numerical and literacy level, level of health and safety awareness, competences in relation to the job and relevant work experience should be assessed. Clearly, a migrant worker who possesses the ‘required’ functional skills will be more valued.

A good level of literacy or the ability to read and understand relevant language used in a workplace is vital to risk communication. Risk communication is an essential tool in health and safety management. Effective risk communication cannot be achieved if the employees cannot read and understand simple health and safety words and signs used to convey safety information in the workplace. The vulnerability of such workers is increased by their inability to communicate. HSE has stated that ‘they rarely receive complaints or phone calls from migrant workers regarding any issue they face at work’.

A non-English speaking migrant worker will find it difficult to understand safety briefings, toolbox talks, method statements or safe systems of work. Identifying such deficiencies needs to be done during the induction process. It is at this point that employers should test workers’ levels of health and safety awareness so that they can focus on what safety training is needed and to make any referrals if necessary. The use of multilingual supervisors at work and translators during induction, task briefings, safety briefings, and replacing written notices with symbols or diagrams and attaching the inexperienced workers to teams with more experienced ones should be encouraged. Failure to address these issues will leave the migrant worker vulnerable to risks, which could also affect others.

Competence is another crucial issue and it is vital that workers have the required skills, training, knowledge and experience. Having all of these enables the migrant worker to carry out his job more safely and invariably helps to raise and maintain safety standards. The vocational qualification of some migrant workers could be of a lower standard compared to that obtained in the United Kingdom.

Employers should check competence cards or qualifications with appropriate UK accreditation agencies to confirm authenticity and make sure they can be matched with the required UK standard. Where there is a gap, supplementary training should be recommended. Frequent supervision is also advised so that managers can spot any areas for improvement.

Hyacinth EZEHyacinth Maduka Eze is Associate HSE/CITB Consultant with Safety Management Consultancy Ltd., U.K.


  1. Keeping migrant workers in the safety advice loop

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8 years ago

Very educative!

Thanks for sharing.

George Okeke
George Okeke
8 years ago

Explicit and challenging to the construction and building industry. A well researched article!

8 years ago

Interesting and informative reading.Well put together.

8 years ago

Good source for understanding the impact of migrant workers at a workplace.

Excellent stuff

5 years ago

Well articulated and educating. Bravo!

Emeka Onoh
Emeka Onoh
5 years ago
Reply to  Uche

Beautiful work my brother. Please keep it up.