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Research puts migrant workers' safety in the picture

5 March 2012

Deaths and injuries among UK-based migrant construction workers could be reduced if pictures were used in safety training – according to research released today (Wednesday 29 February).

The project, commissioned by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) and carried out by Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU), reveals that migrant workers’ understanding of building site health and safety improves when images are used in training. And from these results, IOSH is urging construction companies to include illustrations as standard in their safety training sessions.

Statistics from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show that migrant workers in the construction sector are more likely to be fatally injured than those native to the UK. In fact, six per cent of Britain's 2.3m construction workers are migrants, yet they account for a disproportionate 17 per cent of work-related deaths in that sector. Between April 2005 and March 2008, 25 foreign workers were killed in the UK construction industry.

IOSH executive director of policy Dr Luise Vassie said: “Despite the fact employers have a legal duty to make safety information understandable to all employees, these figures show that some construction companies can do more to make sure staff whose first language isn’t English know how to stay safe on-site.”

The man behind the project, GCU senior research fellow Billy Hare, instructed health and safety training to be delivered to over 80 migrant workers, across four construction sites in London and Manchester. He used a combination of sketch drawings, pictograms and photos to translate the safety message. Test scores showed their knowledge levels from pictorial images were always higher, some increasing by 20 per cent.

He said: “This improvement shows that there is currently a gap in migrant worker training, as crucial occupational safety and health information can be lost in translation. After all, the standards, work methods and equipment used on UK building sites can be different to those that migrant workers are familiar with, so they may need extra support with understanding the risks a completely new environment presents.”

Luise added: “Based on these results, we might assume the number of migrant worker injuries and deaths on building sites could be cut if images were used as standard in training. We’d urge construction companies to take this on and we’d also encourage management to consider this worker group more when looking at their health and safety systems.”

Some of the main reasons for migrant worker injuries highlighted by HSE inspectors have been language skills, cultural differences and inexperience or lack of understanding of UK health and safety standards. But while employers are increasingly putting measures such as translated instructions and multi-lingual supervisors in place, Billy believes this could be a red herring.

He said: “Companies need to do more than just translate health and safety training into their workers’ first languages. Doing this alone can actually lead companies into a false sense of security because, in fact, many workers – whatever their country of origin - have literacy issues. We can’t assume that everyone is able to read instructions, so pictures overcome these issues and enhance what already exists.”

In terms of measuring how images in safety training affect worker behaviour, the test results on observation were harder to measure. Initially, they showed improvements, but these dropped in the long term.

“After the project, one building site carried on using the images by placing them around the site. Once these cropped up in employees’ day-to-day work, behaviour improved and remained high, showing that revisiting the messages on a regular basis can change the way people actually work,” Billy added.

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