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Q&A: What OSH Professionals Need to Know About DEI and Workplace Safety

Dec 07, 2022

This Q&A contains descriptions of events some readers may find disturbing.

In mid-2022, we formed a task force comprised of volunteer leaders to develop an educational summit on diversity, equity and inclusion for the occupational safety and health community. The task force included Kimberly Gamble as chair, Ana Cammarata, Bill Geddings, Christopher Hicks, Stephanie Johnson, Christina Roll and Robert Sharp. 

The free, one-day, virtual event, scheduled for Jan. 26, 2023, will provide participants an opportunity to discuss a wide range of perspectives on creating a more inclusive culture, all with the goal of identifying concrete actions OSH professionals can take to create safer workplaces.

We spoke with three task force members to gain more insight into how DEI impacts organizational performance and why OSH professionals need to deepen their understanding of its impact on workplace safety.

  • Bill Geddings, SMS, CESCP, OHST, CHST, manager, field safety operations, Zoox
  • Christopher Hicks, M.S., CSE, independent OSH consultant
  • Kimberly Gamble, CHST, ASP, director of Andersen Construction Co.’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Advocacy and Leadership (I.D.E.A.L.) program

ASSP: What is one way you feel OSH professionals can support and influence DEI initiatives?

Hicks: It is important to do the work continuously, get involved with DEI initiatives and be ambassadors for DEI through ongoing learning and engagement. We should all be change agents seeking to build cultures of humility and respect. And we should avoid being performative activists by demonstrating that we genuinely care. 

Gamble: Workers often feel they can trust OSH professionals to listen, offer support and advocate for them. With this trust, we can create teams that work collaboratively to not only improve physical safety but also psychological safety.

We also need to better understand how incivility, workplace bullying and a lack of psychological safety can negatively impact workplace safety. These are topics I wish I had known more about when working full time in construction safety. Christine Porath, a professor at Georgetown University, says incivility at work can cause a person to be less committed to their work and more likely to avoid the offender. It can also cause an individual to lose focus, retain less information and make more errors — all potential contributing causes to incidents.

I recall two serious incidents from my 26 years working in construction safety. Had I known then what I know now about inclusion and belonging, I would have embedded civility and psychological safety evaluations into the incident investigation processes because uncivil behavior was a contributing cause.

Geddings: Through our actions of being inclusive — whether in our writings, emails, training programs or similar communications — we can make a difference. Use inclusive language in your business writings, evaluations, assessments, and learning and development materials.  

ASSP: Why are DEI concepts important to occupational safety and health? 

Gamble: In May 2020, we found a noose on one of our construction sites and our response was not what it should have been. This occurred two days before the death of George Floyd, so by the time our leaders learned about the incident, our cities, communities and workplaces were in chaos. Our jobsite was just a couple of blocks from where Portland’s protest activity occurred nightly for many months. Our workforce was not only working its way through its own hate crime response but reeling from the turmoil affecting our community. 

Shortly after these events, I hosted a small gathering of craftworkers, all of whom were people of color. During this gathering, one of the Black electrical apprentices in our group shared his personal fear that someone might remove his lock and re-energize a circuit while he was working on it. My heart dropped at that moment, and I realized that workplace safety only truly works to its fullest when workers trust each other. Creating an inclusive workplace where all employees, most especially our women and employees who identify as LGBTQ, BIPOC or neurodiverse, truly have a full sense of belonging is paramount to a strong safety culture.

Geddings: It is simple, and I have been saying this for years: If our employees don’t feel safe at work, then we can’t expect them to be safe at work.

Hicks: DEI is pivotal to occupational safety and health for many reasons, but most importantly it helps ensure improved teamwork. It enhances the work environment, and it contributes to safety culture and performance, compliance, return on investment, and return on equity, while also reducing complacency.

ASSP: What strategies have you found effective in responding to DEI challenges?

Geddings: Be open-minded, respect others and be inquisitive. I also live by the mantra that you should treat others as you would want to be treated. We all should strive to leave the world a better place than we found it.

Hicks: Having an action plan that proactively supports every aspect of DEI with initiatives that prompt cultural change, improve equity and respect, and allow for open dialogue and proactive conflict resolution. Through these ongoing actions, we will promote understanding and create an environment in which we all benefit from everyone’s differences in the workplace and within society.

Gamble: Our DEI program purposefully starts with inclusion. By focusing on this area first, we work to bring people together, then create brave learning spaces. In these learning spaces, we have hosted DEI consultants, trainers and people of diverse lived experiences to lead sessions on implicit bias, Black history, Native American history, Hispanic and Latino history, and critical race theory in design.

We also have introduced a program with a focus on the construction industry’s history and demographics, sharing research data that demonstrates why we lose so many apprentices — particularly women and people of color — and the threat this poses for our industry. We address behaviors that harm and introduce bystander intervention and psychological safety.

ASSP: How can safety professionals engage executive leadership support for addressing DEI as it impacts organizational safety?

Hicks: Seek leadership assistance and buy-in for new activities, such as establishing employee resource groups or a diversity council. Organizations need to provide resources for DEI initiatives and employ DEI professionals. As safety professionals, we can also help build a business case to demonstrate improvements in key business metrics such as injury and loss rates, employee engagement and organizational reputation.

Gamble: OSH professionals understand how to present the business case for safety to executive leadership. DEI also has a business case. Many resources are available to help us make the case for keeping workers psychologically safe. For example, McKinsey Consulting’s “Diversity Wins” and AGC of America’s “The Business Case for Diversity and Inclusion in the Construction Industry” are excellent resources.

Geddings: We need to collaborate with other functional organizations or teams within our company that have similar DEI goals. This includes legal, employee relations, people experience, human resources, and learning and development.

ASSP: How can OSH professionals best partner with other departments or teams in their organizations to address DEI and better protect workers? 

Gamble: Since OSH professionals often engage with all departments within an organization, we should expand our interdepartmental conversations to learn more about how safety can support employees. Employee resource groups and company town halls are key places to get involved.

Human resources and employee wellness departments can be helpful partners. Many HR and wellness departments have found themselves addressing the country’s suicide crisis. According to the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention, construction occupations have the highest rates of suicide as well as the highest number of suicides across occupational groups. We lose more construction workers to suicide each year than we do workplace fatalities.

Many factors are driving this tragic trend, and research indicates that one effective way to address these issues is to build a caring culture. DEI work is critical to creating a caring culture and sense of belonging. At my company’s large healthcare construction project in Oregon, nine workers approached management, including our OSH professional, and thanked them for discussing mental health on the job and sharing resources as they were thinking about taking their own lives.

Geddings: We need to understand that as OSH professionals and practitioners, we are late to the game. Bring something new and different to the table. Don’t come into the DEI space like a bull in a china shop. Ease your way in, and allow time to understand which battles have been fought and won or lost. Use this context to determine where you can add value and understand that this is a journey, not a race.

Hicks: As OSH professionals, we can help promote departmental and team success by advocating for the DEI process. By doing so, we can contribute to culture change that aligns with the organization’s DEI mission, goals, initiatives, action plans and related timelines. Such actions help ensure a work culture in which safety is a core value built on trust, dignity, open communication and caring.

ASSP: What are the long-term consequences if we ignore DEI in workplace safety?

Geddings: If we ignore DEI from an OSH perspective, we will lose credibility with a whole generation of our workforce. It is the expectation of millennials and members of Gen Z. In addition, many generations value the learnings of their children and younger family members.

Hicks: We will communicate the message that safety is not a core value within our organization if we ignore DEI. This will have a negative impact on performance, employee engagement, morale and workforce turnover. It will also diminish teamwork, lead to less innovation and cause limited interest in areas such as preventive maintenance, training and similar functions that are critical to providing a safe work environment.

Gamble: We are facing severe worker shortages across many industries and our global population is becoming more diverse. The construction industry has had labor force shortages for many years. Associated Builders and Contractors predicts construction will need 590,000 new trades workers in 2023 in addition to normal, day-to-day hiring. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the average age for construction workers is 42.3 years with roughly 21% of the workforce either at retirement age or within six years of retirement age.

Research by Portland State University Professor Maura Kelly found that only 56% of those who start a construction apprenticeship complete that apprenticeship. Even more disturbing is the data indicating that only 33% of Black men who start a construction-related apprenticeship will become journeyworkers. A toxic work environment is reported to be a leading reason for these low completion rates. For the construction industry, DEI, mental health, wellness and a culture of caring are critical, not only for the industry but also for the national economy.

ASSP: What has influenced your thinking around DEI and prompted you to be an advocate for change?

Hicks: I have always been interested in DEI, but the extreme events and conditions occurring in 2020, including the murder of George Floyd, made it an even higher priority for me. This includes topics such as race relations, health and economic disparities, social injustice, and racism and bias. These issues contribute to creating a hostile and unsafe work environment, and this motivates me as a leader in OSH and my community to work tirelessly to build and maintain bridges on and off the job.

Gamble: I have always strongly believed that everyone deserves a safe place to work. I have also always believed that we are better together and the polarization we are experiencing across the country is troubling.

When I began my career in construction safety, there were only a handful of women working in the industry in my geographical area. Safety was still viewed by many as an extra expense that unnecessarily interrupted productivity. I remember being harassed, excluded, called names, yelled at, intimidated and ignored on jobsites. My experiences paled in comparison to what women and minority craftworkers encountered then and still experience on some jobsites today. All this despite working for an organization with a core value of treating people with dignity and respect.

Our workplaces play an important role in our lives, either positively or negatively. Incorporating DEI into workplace safety is a natural progression to a more integrated, holistic approach.

Geddings: My influences have been centered around two primary experiences: Growing up within a community of special needs persons and being a non-heterosexual.

ASSP: What are some lessons learned in DEI-related work in your organization or your ASSP member community?

Hicks: Representation of people of color continues to be a challenge and an opportunity in many workplaces and communities, including our ASSP member communities. Our DEI work, including education events such as the DEI Summit, can go a long way in generating greater awareness, building relationships and promoting concrete actions that increase opportunities for equity, inclusion, upward mobility and representation. These efforts confront the systematic racism and unconscious bias that hinder growth and stagnate results.

Gamble: It is important to not lay blame for our past at the feet of today’s generation or create divisiveness with DEI work. We need to create a space where everyone can thrive and be their authentic selves.

Geddings: To me, the biggest lesson learned comes from previous movements of our culture. That lesson is that the demographic seeking change and inclusion cannot be successful alone. We all need allies outside our communities to be successful.

ASSP: What are some creative ways you’ve helped your organization or ASSP member community proactively source candidates from underrepresented populations, foster greater inclusivity or create a more equitable environment?

Gamble: My company is trying to recruit and promote differently. While serving in my safety role, we worked with craftworkers who were on a path to leadership and developed an internal environmental health and safety supervisor role for individuals seeking to become superintendents. While in the role, this person was a full member of the EHS department for a period of six to 12 months. During this time, they had to complete all construction-related OSHA outreach courses. We had recognized the need for bilingual safety supervision internally and had struggled to hire externally. This program allowed us to promote bilingual individuals from within who have technical construction knowledge and a strong basic understanding of workplace safety. It has provided an opportunity for some craftworkers to develop into strong safety leaders and OSH professionals. We are mirroring this program to develop field engineers from the trades as well.

Other unique recruiting and development programs include a paid, full-time, three-year project technician internship in partnership with Self Enhancement Inc. Additionally, we collaborate with technical schools and pre-apprenticeship programs to provide job shadowing opportunities, jobsite visits, participation with the program's training and education efforts, and financial support. Pre-apprenticeship programs are vital to our talent pipeline and always in need of funding.

Geddings: I always try to invite people to the table. I also try to lead by example. This includes being engaged in my various communities. For example, I belong to all four ASSP common interest groups because I am an ally to them all.  

Hicks: As a trailblazer and change agent who is a Black person, I held a technical and advisory position at a time when there were relatively few people of color working in this profession. I am the first and only Black person who has been president of ASSP's St. Louis Chapter. I believe I helped pave the way for the increased numbers of Black people in our profession. Throughout my career, I have spoken at ASSP and various industry conferences and supported other initiatives to improve DEI, such as participating on the DEI Summit Task Force. In addition, as an adjunct professor at the University of Central Missouri, I taught B.S. and M.S. safety courses to encourage more inclusivity in our profession and increase interest in the field among people of color. And, I created and continue to manage the LinkedIn group for ASSP’s Blacks in Safety Excellence Common Interest Group.

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Connect DEI Concepts and Workplace Safety at Our Upcoming Summit

Join us Jan. 26 to interact with peers about diversity, equity and inclusion issues and their impact on aspects of workplace safety such as culture, psychological safety, training and performance.

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