Workplace discrimination happens when employers treat employees differently due to factors like their race, age, gender or sexual orientation.
There are federal laws against such treatment in the United States, but it still happens. And, many people initially feel surprised after learning of the link between workplace discrimination and reduced employee safety.
1. Vulnerable workers less likely to report injuries and may keep working through them
People facing perceived or actual discrimination may be less likely to get treatment for their injuries and could get asked to keep working despite being hurt, a Penn State study showed.
The research profiled the experiences of 89 Latino farm-workers who migrated from Mexico to work on farms in Texas. During the five-month study, 67 of the workers experienced unfair treatment including being forced to work despite injuries. Depending on the extent of an issue, working while hurt could make it challenging for someone to adhere to best practices and hinder their concentration, making more accidents possible.
Regardless of the work environment, if a person feels so discriminated against that they believe they must follow orders and keep quiet about grievances at all costs to stay employed, it makes sense why many wouldn't disclose injuries.
2. Young workers not likely to speak up about safety issues when fearing hostility
A person's age is another factor that can lead to discrimination. A study of teenage workers in Manitoba, Canada found that people aged 15-19 have valid ideas about how to improve safety in the workplace but won't likely suggest them if anticipating hostile or indifferent responses from superiors.
People who felt they could not discuss workplace safety concerns had higher rates of injuries than those comfortable with bringing concerns to their bosses. The researchers suggested that managers making it clear they value all workers regardless of age or experience can bring about improvement.
The lessons apply to everyone at a workplace, but especially minority groups. If people believe they'll be ridiculed or ignored for making recommendations, they won't bother.
3. Gender-based discrimination could have severe and varied effects
March is Women's History Month, making it a good time to remember that although female equality has come a long way, more progress must happen.
Sexual harassment has severe physical and mental effects on both genders, but women are more likely than men to experience such harassment. It's a type of gender discrimination brought out of the shadows over the last couple of years. Even so, people experiencing it might avoid reporting instances.
If things like sexual comments or inappropriate touches weigh heavily on their minds, they could find it difficult to pay attention and follow the proper steps to operate machinery safely. Or, if a female works in a factory traditionally dominated by men, such as an automotive assembly plant, she could get depressed by the comments people make about how she's doing "a man's job" despite being equally or more qualified.
Males can also experience gender discrimination — for instance, if they admit to coworkers that they want time off work to care for a newborn baby. The effects of gender discrimination vary on a case-by-case basis.
However, workplace safety can be compromised if people find that being in the minority due to gender puts them at risk for behavior such as bullying. Or, individuals could feel so distressed by what they experience that they're too distracted to work safely.
4. Discrimination could lead to disgruntled employees
Numerous news outlets cover workplace shootings carried out by upset employees or former employees. A recent incident at a Chicago factory involved a shooter whose employment was terminated. In that case, the perpetrator illegally had access to a firearm. It's not always possible to know what leads shooters to turn on their coworkers like this, especially since those with the firearms often commit suicide after opening fire on others.
But, there are several reasons why people commit workplace violence, including the urge to avenge perceived wrongdoing or bring international attention to a personal problem. If a person got fired because of poor performance but believed it was actually because of their skin color or religion, they might feel more compelled to respond with violence.
That outcome could become even more likely if the individual was discriminated against regularly during the employment period and believes managers didn't handle it well or at all.
Fighting discrimination fits into a company safety plan
This coverage should illuminate why anti-discrimination efforts are as necessary to keep workers safe as teaching them how to use protective equipment or operate dangerous machinery.
Individuals don't always associate discrimination with less safety, but there's a well-defined connection.