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August 22, 2007

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Effective communication

IOSH president elect Ray Hurst says that communicating with migrant workers is essential for health and safety professionals to be able to do their job successfully. It’s a challenge the profession has to rise to.

Communicating with foreign workers is a serious challenge for employers, and with the huge increase in workers with only basic English skills in the UK, it’s an issue we as a profession need to be looking at.

Migrants seeking work in the UK is not a new thing. Irish and Jewish workers came over in the late 1800s and early 1900s, West Indian workers came to our shores in the 1950s, and they were followed in the 1960s and 1970s by workers from the Asian subcontinent. Some 3.6 million workers, 10 per cent of our current working population, were born overseas.

But it would be wrong to say that these migrant workers are low skilled. Many, in fact, are skilled — but often end up in lower-skilled jobs in UK society.

To help skilled migrant workers show their talent, we have to communicate in a way they will understand. If we all take Basil Fawlty’s approach to explaining a fire drill to Manuel in Fawlty Towers, then we’re likely to get Fawlty-like results — “Qué?” The difference is that in reality it’s not so funny.

There is probably a manager out there in charge of 20 or more migrant workers who have only a basic grasp of English. This brings potentially serious health and safety implications: the worker could mis-understand or ignore an instruction they can’t understand, or the manager could become stressed and agitated from trying to explain. This isn’t healthy for either party.

As health and safety practitioners, we need to find ways of ensuring these situations don’t arise, or, if they do, resolving them before disaster strikes. It means we have to find ways of communicating with migrant workers who have a limited knowledge of English so that they can understand our messages.

The Morecambe Bay disaster showed that we need to help migrant workers understand the rights they have when working in the UK. Our health and safety and employment laws are there to protect them. If the laws are not doing that — or employers are treating migrant workers as ‘second class’ or disposable workers — then we need to tackle that. As health and safety practitioners know only too well, that kind out attitude can end up costing companies more money in the long run.

Employing migrant workers can be a major positive. It brings new perspective into an organisation, but it also brings challenges — such as the conflict between traditional/religious dress and PPE. It’s these challenges we need to grasp with both hands.

I believe migrant workers are an asset for industry. They help plug gaps in our workforce by doing jobs that British people are reluctant to do. Yet I am concerned that exploitative employers are not playing by the rules, and putting migrant workers in dangerous situations. This is something that I hope to put right during my presidential year.

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