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5 Ways to Promote Safety in Cross-Cultural Settings

Jan 23, 2018

GettyImages-498323381Adapting to the global economy isn’t optional for occupational safety and health professionals anymore; it’s a necessity.

A new peer-reviewed article by Michael A. Flynn (NIOSH), Elizabeth Castellanos (Heineken International) and Augusto Flores-Andrade (ARSEIN), titled “Safety Across Cultures: Understanding the Challenges,” examines how OSH employees and their employers can best promote safety in cross-cultural settings. The need for multicultural safety approaches doesn’t just impact OSH personnel who travel abroad; it is also critical for safety professionals who regularly encounter foreign companies on their home turf.

Cultural sensitivity is particularly important for those in supervisory roles, according to Flynn, et al., because they are often required to function as translators, facilitating communication between local employees and foreign firms. Whether people working in safety are overseeing operations outside their country or employed by an international company with a different set of expectations, these five steps can help them evaluate their cross-cultural capacity and improve their effectiveness.

1. Understand Culture and Global Trends

The first step in overcoming almost any obstacle is awareness. Before OSH employees can become more culturally adept, they need to learn what culture actually means within the context of the profession. Culture goes deeper than what people wear, the language they speak and the foods they eat. It functions as a shorthand for the workplace interactions people value most: What does it mean to be a good coworker, leader or manager? How do people acknowledge each other’s efforts and triumphs? How do companies persuade workers to change their behavior?

“For OSH, we can understand culture 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,” the article says.   

With a clear understanding of workplace culture in mind, OSH personnel can look carefully at the shifting global power structures affecting transactional commerce and everyday interactions among workers. For example, traditionally, capital investments and safety-related technological knowledge has followed a one-way path from the industrialized world to developing countries. If this transaction is mishandled from a cross-cultural perspective, ignoring the differences that could make implementing certain safety policies more challenging or even irrelevant, workers may be at greater risk of injury, illness or death.

2. Own Your Biases 

Do fish in a bowl realize they’re swimming in water? It can be difficult to remain mindful of the fact that everyone has their own cultural environment and personal history that influences their approach to safety and work, especially when “everyone” includes you. However, this step is key to developing cross-cultural competence and embracing new ways of approaching safety and health. The results of skipping this step can be disastrous. When OSH professionals neglect to consider their own biases and think outside the ways they typically perform, they risk alienating colleagues and employees from different cultural backgrounds. Even worse, they could end up hindering their own safety efforts.     

3. Observe Differences

At this point in the process, OSH professionals understand that global supply chains and businesses require a cosmopolitan and considerate approach. A more challenging prospect is identifying which cultural differences demand the most immediate and measurable shifts in behavior. “Safety Across Cultures” offers valuable insight into one cross-cultural challenge OSH personnel often face: Differing approaches to “teams” and “teamwork.”

The article cites findings from a 2012 study titled “Minding Your Metaphors: Applying the Concept of Teamwork Metaphors to the Management of Teams in Multicultural Contexts.” It says people from cultures that use sports metaphors when referring to work teams often expect their interactions to consist only of meetings at work and project-related discussions. Alternatively, people from cultures that use family metaphors when referring to a work team often expect to have more social interactions outside of work and encourage employees to share the details of their personal lives.

4. Ask Questions

“Safety procedures and programs that are created in one social context often fail when carried out in another,” the article says.

While it can be difficult to ask questions that display a less-than-comprehensive understanding of a culture, foreign company or individual, it is also the best way to learn. If it’s unclear what motivates members of a particular culture to change their habits or collaborate effectively, ask around. If there’s a safety issue without a clear solution, make it clear that input is welcome, spelling out every detail and expectation. Leave no room for confusion or cross-cultural discomfort.

5. Open Your Mind

Assumptions are often enemies of safety, and that is especially true during cross-cultural interactions. According to the article, leaders should be aware that power dynamics can impede communication and that employees may not feel comfortable questioning the ideas or beliefs of someone in charge. It’s up to those in supervisory positions to open the lines of communication and encourage constructive criticism without fear of reprisal. By embracing a free exchange of ideas and having the courage to be open to those ideas, OSH professionals can start successfully working across cultures and toward their common goals.


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