In Harm's Way: A case study of Pacific Workers in Manukau Manufacturing
The perspectives of employers and employees are, not surprisingly, different. However, both groups raised the issue of communication lapses that influence the health and safety practices in the workplaces studied. Communication issues stemmed from language barriers, learning style differences, and communication style differences.
The employers/managers interviewed for this study noted that there were situations where it seemed as though their Pacific workers had understood the instructions given to them in relation to health and safety when in fact they had not. They were also well aware of the language issues affecting training sessions, and some had employed ad hoc remedies such as staff members translating messages.
Employers/managers also discussed the need for hands-on, small-group training sessions when working with their Pacific staff. The research did not ascertain whether this was specific to Pacific staff, or preferred by all staff, but it was clear from the interviewing that these smaller practical sessions were preferred by Pacific staff. Employees in this study also stated that hands-on, small-group training was their preferred method of learning. This is something the literature had not previously raised, but it was seen consistently across both employers' and employees' interviews.
Employees in this study also noted that the use of English in health and safety messages created barriers for them. Both signage around the plants and training sessions that were solely in English were seen to limit the uptake of lessons/messages because staff did not find them accessible.
7.2 Importance of Management Focus
The importance of management focus on health and safety was evident throughout the interviews of both employers and employees
Yeah. Because I've worked on the, on the, in corporate sides, and the first line of every meeting is health and safety. You know, we have, we have meetings and we don't even mention it, unless somebody's been seriously injured. And all we do then is mention how much it's going to cost. So the general focus of the owners, right through the management, the general manager-he doesn't know anything about health and safety. He's a, he's a salesperson, and so he's not enforcing anything. He's not trying to direct us in a, in a new, in a new way, whereas in, in the corporate world, or a company that's heavily into health and safety, it's normally the first line in the meetings and there's a lot more physical health and safety.
I think the attitude of managers is one of, we'd need to be stronger. We do the minimum, and we're pretty much fire fighters.
We had three fatalities here. And there really was no commitment from the senior management team to health and safety. They were talking talk, but there was no visible or felt leadership in that department, and we, we've struggled on. It's probably only in the last four years, when senior management changed, that we've 100 percent commitment. And that's the main focus of the business.
This study suggests that the attitude taken by management is a defining feature of the health and safety behaviour of staff, as was seen in the study by Mearns and Yule (2009). The greater the focus of management initiatives on health and safety, the greater the awareness among staff of the need to adhere to proper procedures and to report injuries and near misses. This can have two possible effects on the injury rates seen by agencies like ACC and the Department of Labour: either a decrease caused by fewer accidents in the workplace, or an increase caused by greater reporting of accidents.
The age group within Pacific people contributing the most to the high ACC reporting rates is 41−65 years (see section 4.5). An underlying cause of this may be co-morbidity. Co-morbidity refers to two or more medical conditions coinciding to, in this case, create greater risk of injury. Studies have shown that if an individual is already experiencing a chronic illness, such as diabetes, gout or heart disease, their risk of being injured in the workplace is increased (Cunningham et al. 2010).
Statistics from the Manukau District Health Board have shown that Pacific people in this region are at greater risk of chronic illness such as diabetes, gout, and heart disease. Rates of hospitalisation for gout within the Pacific communities in Manukau are 15 to 16 times those of non-Pacific/non-Māori communities in Manukau (Novak 2007). Pacific ethnic groups also have a diabetes prevalence rate that is over twice that of European ethnic groups, and over one and half times that of Māori and Asian ethnic groups (Novak 2007).
Employers in this study noted that there were cases at their business that were in line with this research.
Having come from that clinic-based role, a lot of the people I've worked with here for gout, diabetes, all those kind of things, are from the Pacific Island group. And again are the ones showing up with maybe more injuries potentially as well. Not always. Tend to be the older people ... I notice that in, middle-aged to older people. The younger people tend to be more, 'I'll just get on with it ... Oh, it's a bit of a niggle' ... then it's worse and worse, and then it becomes a problem. Whereas the older people, it is, yeah, more the co-morbidities showing up ... and needing to go on transitional duties, or be moved into a different area...
We've got a medical centre on site with an occupational health nurse. And the same old story-we see 20 percent of the people 80 percent of the time, and whether that's for accidents or illness, it doesn't really matter. It's the same people. Gout particularly, I think, because-yes they don't tend to move well. I have one particular man who has two pairs of boots, one larger than the other, for when he has trouble.
We asked them what they wanted and what problems were that they thought needed addressing. We thought-as would most people-that we would need to get the smoking people in. It's [the] biggest problem on site. But it was actually gout. Once we got some buy-in with the gout sufferers, the rest was easy. And there's so many resources out there that deal with Pacific Island and Māori people, from a health perspective.
These examples also highlight some of the measures taken by businesses to deal with co-morbidity issues that could affect health and safety, particularly information provision and providing equipment that is suited to the individual's needs.
7.4 Power Distance
'Power distance' is a term used by Hofstede (1984) to describe the degree of inequality present in a society/organisation, as measured by those with the least or lesser power. This was explored in this research, but with limited success. There were examples and hints that the Pacific workers interviewed saw an unequal distribution of power, and in response experienced a degree of marginalisation. However, the breadth of the interview topics meant this was not explored to a depth that would allow for definite conclusions to be drawn.
If the hints of power distance are a sign of a more widespread issue, this means that Pacific workers' high rates of injury in the workplace may in part be explained by their marginal position within the organisation. This is an area for potential future work as a research topic in its own right. However, in terms of this research, whilst some sort of hierarchy will inevitably be present within companies, this type of structure does not need to have an impact on health and safety practices and if it is, further research may offer suggestions of how to mitigate this unintended consequence.
There is already research that has found Pacific people in New Zealand have lower rates of literacy and numeracy than other ethnic groups (Satherley & Laws 2008). Like power distance, there were hints of this being an issue for the Pacific workers in Manukau manufacturing interviewed in this research, but it did not come through as strongly as other issues.
This low level of discussion could simply stem from it not being a significant issue, or perhaps (more likely) from the method of data collection not being suited to this area of research. Individuals with low levels of literacy are subject to social stigma, and subsequently shame, and may not feel comfortable discussing such a sensitive topic with anyone, let alone someone they have met so few times and who was, in some cases, younger than themselves.
Employers did discuss literacy as being an issue they were aware of in terms of training issues. Given the lower literacy rates established in the wider Pacific population and references made to this by employer representatives, literacy is likely factor to consider in future initiatives to ensure that health and safety messaging and training are accessible for the target audience.
7.6 Cultural Factors
The role of culture in health and safety behaviour is very complex. Understanding the impact that a particular cultural practice has on behaviour requires knowledge of the context surrounding the practice and behaviour, as well as knowledge of the practice's origins.
Rather than any one culture creating an issue in health and safety, it is more clearly the interaction of different cultural practices that creates some of the breakdown between the goals of health and safety and the reality of the situation on the ground. New Zealand health and safety expects that staff will report all injuries and speak up if there are aspects of training or guidelines that are not understandable, but this is not necessarily the practice of all cultures.
The practices that exist within Samoan culture-of respect, humility, loyalty, and hard work-appear to be contributing to the high rates of ACC reporting in both a positive and a negative way. There is evidence from both sides (employees and employers) in this study to suggest that Pacific workers, particularly Samoan workers, under-report minor injuries and near misses. This stems from a fear of losing their job, not wanting to be disrespectful or disloyal, as well as not wanting to make a fuss. However, it also appears that this approach leads to Pacific workers being in riskier situations with regard to health and safety, through a willingness to step outside their role if asked by employers, as well as an unwillingness to speak up if an instruction or message about health and safety practice is unclear.
The Matai structure is another cultural practice that is having an impact on health and safety practices. Employer representatives discussed the Matai structure as having a strong influence on the practice of Samoan workers, who would regard the Matai's advice more highly than a manager's. Utilising this structure in an appropriate way could lead to better communication of messages by employers, but there was limited understanding of how to do this.
The factors involved in the high rates of ACC reporting by Pacific workers are complex, multifaceted and inter-related. Issues such as co-morbidity and the degree of power distance in workplaces are outside the scope of the work of the Department of Labour, but are important factors to bear in mind in any interventions in this area. Communication issues are highlighted by both employees and employers in this study, and relate to the need for different cultures to find common understanding. Communication issues arise because of the varied approaches taken by different ethnic groups, both in learning, first language used, and communication style, which are influenced by cultural practices. Cultural practices thus influence communication issues but also have an influence outside of communication (as discussed above). This adds to the complexity of the problem.
While the situation is complex, there are some potential initiatives the Department of Labour could undertake to improve the situation seen in Manukau, which is likely to be indicative of the manufacturing industry as a whole, and potentially of a number of workplaces that have diverse workforces with a number of different ethnic groups employed. Potential interventions and recommendations for next steps are discussed in the next section.
 Edited to ensure confidentiality