Cross-Cultural Safety and Health

A recent article in Professional Safety, “Safety Across Cultures: Understanding the Challenges,” discusses the challenges of cross-cultural safety and health and offers suggestions on how to approach these growing responsibilities.

Occupational safety and health (OSH) professionals work both in companies that send safety professionals to oversee operations in a foreign country and for foreign companies who employ local safety personnel. Safety professionals must adjust their own approaches to safety, and that of their organizations, to effectively adapt to the global economy.

In safety and health, culture can be defined as a system of shared beliefs and behaviors that affects how workers from different ethnic and social groups perceive, understand, adapt to and address safety concerns at work. Examples of cultural factors that can affect safety at work are how:

  • a coworker and a boss understand safety and who is responsible for it;
  • subordinates, equals, and superiors can appropriately interact with each other;
  • people say work is done and how work is actually done;
  • employees perceive work dangers relative to other risks they face in their daily lives;
  • employees adapt to workplace dangers; and
  • these understandings are similar or different for workers with different cultural backgrounds.

When working in different cultures, OSH professionals need to first recognize their own cultural bias and that of their coworkers. OSH professionals often focus on carrying out the technical aspects of the program in the same way they do in their home country to attempt to improve safety in new locations. This focus often ignores the need to adapt programs to local conditions.

Safety professionals would benefit from seeking input on local context and meanings, and on the appropriateness of programs and initiatives. Cultural training for safety and health professionals will become increasingly important as the global economy grows and diversifies.

Safety professionals who develop the ability to work effectively in cross-cultural settings will be better positioned to promote workers health, safety and well-being in the increasingly global economy.