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Occupational health and safety for migrant workers

Written by
Peter Watson, Watson & Watson
Date of Publication:
13 January 2020

Migrant workers are an essential source of labour for many UK firms across a whole range of industries, (particularly construction, agriculture and healthcare).

Although Brexit has the potential to raise a host of questions about their work-related migration, it's probably safe to assume that migrant workers will continue to play a key role in the UK's labour market and as such it makes sense to think about the occupational health and safety issues which can impact them.

Communication issues

Be aware that there may be people who can speak and understand English well but not be comfortable reading and writing in English and vice versa. There are three main approaches to addressing this.

The first is to confirm an individual's level of competence in each specific area of communication and work within that.

The second is to produce information in the individual's native language and the third is to work through non-linguistic communication, for example to images instead of words.

Be very cautious about placing too much value on English-language qualifications, especially if they were earned some time ago and there is no evidence that the migrant worker has kept their language skills in practice. Migrant workers with "rusty" English skills may acquire a reasonable level of fluency fairly quickly, but there will probably need some time to do so.

It's also important to note that communication issues can feed into a lack of understanding between migrant workers and British ones, which can harm the mental and emotional health of migrant workers.

Lack of understanding of their practical needs

In the UK, it is standard practice to ask new employees if they have any special needs of which the employer needs to be aware and, more specifically, if they have any specific requirements which need to be met in order for them to be able to work in a healthy and safe manner.

Even if this process is undertaken with migrant workers, it may not be as effective either because of language issues or because of a lack of understanding of the UK's working environment.

In particular, migrant workers may be hesitant to make employers aware of any issues they may face in case they experience negative consequences as a result. It is therefore crucial that migrant workers are made aware that such questions are standard in the UK and that there are no negative repercussions to answering them honestly.

Need for further training

Even if vocational qualifications are compatible with their counterparts in the UK, there is a strong possibility that migrant workers will require further training to make sure that they understand the legalities and practicalities of working in the UK.

For example, while the principle of health and safety may apply across borders (in theory at least) not only is there a wide degree of variation regarding how it is applied in practice, but UK-specific requirements such as RIDDOR, by definition, only apply in the UK and hence migrant workers will probably need to be made aware of them.