Lessons about national culture and its impact on workplace health and safety in New Zealand

by Mai Chen14 Oct 2019

by Mai Chen

On 11 October, the Superdiversity Institute for Law, Policy and Business launched its latest report: National Culture and its Impact on Workplace Health and Safety and Injury Prevention for Employers and Workers. The report is an example of how a superdiversity framework can be applied to areas of policy, legislation, and regulation to ensure that issues and challenges arising from superdiversity are properly understood and to ensure that policy, law, and regulation is fit for purpose for New Zealand’s superdiverse population. 

ACC claims data shows that, by comparison to European ethnicities, Māori, Pacific peoples, and people from Middle-Eastern, Latin American, and African ethnicities have a significantly higher number of claims per 1,000 full-time employees. People identifying as Asian have a significantly lower incidence rate of claims than Europeans, but research indicates that this reflects barriers to access to ACC (they do not know what this is or how to claim it) rather than a lower incidence of injury among Asian workers.

The National Culture report finds that culturally, ethnically, and linguistically diverse (CALD) workers in New Zealand are disproportionately vulnerable to workplace injury and health-and-safety issues. The New Zealand government has set an ambitious vision in the Health and Safety at Work Strategy 2018-2028 that “Work is healthy and safe for everyone in New Zealand.”

Clearly, understanding and addressing the disproportionate vulnerability of CALD workers is crucial to achieving this vision, and to injury prevention, which is at the heart of ACC’s raison d’être. It is also essential that employers understand the impact of national culture on workplace health and safety if they are going to fulfil their primary duty of care under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 (“HSW Act”) to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of workers. 

The National Culture report concludes that different ethnic groups in New Zealand have markedly different cultural values, which affect their view of risk, and their health and safety attitudes and behaviours. In some cases, limited English proficiency also requires different approaches to communicating health and safety information.

This is the “invisible elephant” in the room that is little understood and is not adequately reflected in current approaches to reducing workplace injury and ensuring workers’ health and safety.

The National Culture report finds that to successfully prevent injury among CALD workers, employers and workers must be aware of these different “health and safety cultures”, and take account of them in developing effective tools, tactics and strategies for workplace health and safety and injury prevention, within the Robens-model HSW Act regime. This act emphasises worker participation and self-regulation, two principles that the National Culture report concludes are not necessarily well-suited to workers from different national cultures in New Zealand.

The National Culture report also finds little evidence of a systematic approach to improving health and safety for CALD workers, in the eight overseas jurisdictions considered. However, among the ad hoc tools, tactics, and strategies the report identifies from the eight superdiverse countries (Canada, United States of America, United Kingdom, Singapore, Germany, Kuwait, and Malaysia) considered in the report, there are some useful approaches New Zealand employers and employee advocacy groups can learn from to protect the health and safety of CALD workers.

Findings – tools, tactics, and strategies to improve workplace health and safety for culturally diverse workers

The National Culture report finds that there are certain vulnerability factors which are common to CALD workers across the eight jurisdictions surveyed, including language barriers; lack of awareness of health and safety (risk perception issues); cultural attitudes and behaviours that result in unsafe practices; cultural attitudes and behaviours preventing active engagement, participation and representation; and increased susceptibility to mental health issues owing to the stresses of discrimination, and for migrants, of settlement.

The tools, tactics and strategies used in these jurisdictions fit into nine distinct themes: proper data collection and coordination across the system; identifying and overcoming language barriers; training and orientation for CALD workers, including on workers’ rights; addressing increased susceptibility to mental health issues among CALD workers; using peers/family to deliver injury prevention information; educating workers “where they are” by delivering targeted programmes; helping CALD workers identify health risks early; training and orientation for employers of CALD workers; and better measurement of the effectiveness of tools, tactics and strategies as the missing link.

These themes are all relevant to the New Zealand context and the report makes a number of recommendations as to how tools, tactics, and strategies can be used to improve outcomes across these themes for CALD workers in New Zealand.

Findings – health and safety cultures in New Zealand

The National Culture report leverages “cultural dimensions theory” to understand how culture affects values, attitudes and behaviour, and applies these to understand the health and safety culture of different ethnic groups in New Zealand. The report also provides insights from CALD interviewees, who were selected on the basis of their cultural background, expertise in health and safety, and experience in working in superdiverse environments.

For the purposes of the report, those fitting in the “mainstream Kiwi culture” group will often be New Zealand European or Pākehā. But people of other ethnicities may also fit into this category where they do not identify with the national culture of that ethnicity. This point is particularly relevant to second and third generation migrants, who, despite having (for example) Chinese or Indian ancestry, may well be more likely to display “mainstream Kiwi culture” traits.

“Mainstream Kiwi culture” was found to be individualistic and strong at reporting errors and in communicating risks to superiors. Māori, Pacific, and Asian cultures were found, in general to be highly collectivist and, owing to a preference for a hierarchical social order over equal distribution of power, poorer at reporting errors and in communicating risks to superiors. Thus the National Culture report found that “mainstream Kiwi culture” was at the opposite end of the spectrum to indigenous and other major cultures within New Zealand (Pacific, Asian – Chinese, Indian, Korean, and Filipino, and “Other”).

New Zealand’s approach to health and safety legislation may be less effective for CALD workers given the emphasis in the HSW Act on worker engagement and participation (sections 58 to 99). As ethnic cultures tend to be poorer at reporting errors or communicating risk to superiors, this prevents risks from being identified before injuries occur, and inhibits whistleblowing. Additionally, CALD workers are more likely to be supporting extended families back home, and this can also inhibit reporting as they fear reprisal from employers that could cost them their jobs.

These significant differences in health and safety attitudes and behaviours therefore increase the risks of cultural misunderstanding in work situations where, for example, managers identifying with mainstream Kiwi culture are overseeing the health and safety of mainly ethnic workers. This may exacerbate the injury rate of CALD workers.

Another significant finding was that CALD workers from different cultures can have differing risk perception which leads them to take greater risks. In particular, migrant workers bring their home health and safety cultures with them, which are often lower than New Zealand standards, and operate from that frame of reference. This may also impact detrimentally on the injury rate of CALD workers.

Ethnic employers may also find implementing health and safety systems difficult if English is not their first language, particularly given complex wording in the HSW Act, such as the requirement in section 36 for Persons Conducting a Business or Undertaking (PCBUs) to ensure “so far as is reasonably practicable” the health and safety of workers. Ethnic workers may also struggle if the culture in their country of origin is to follow prescriptive rules. For example, Indians and Chinese generally have an external locus of control (a belief that a person’s life is controlled by outside factors), so lack of clarity is a main source of stress. In contrast, mainstream Kiwi culture generally tends to have an internal locus of control (a belief that a person can control their own life) meaning that workers ascribing to “mainstream Kiwi culture” prefer not to be given exact instructions on how to carry out work.

Our research found that elements of a mainstream Kiwi workplace can negatively impact workers from other health and safety cultures and in particular this is evident in mental health issues for CALD workers. For example, Indian workers report that not having explicit instructions as to work duties was a key source of stress, whereas “mainstream Kiwi” workers have an internal locus of control and prefer not to be given exact instructions on how to carry out their work. Migrant workers may also be more vulnerable to mental health problems arising from isolation; pressure from the stresses of living and working in a new place; and the need to provide for extended family back home.

Discrimination also increases the risk of workplace injury, from CALD workers being disproportionately represented in more dangerous occupations (arising in part from bias in hiring decisions) to experiences of discrimination and harassment in the workplace negatively affecting workers’ mental health. Finally, many CALD workers come from cultures where raising mental health concerns is socially inappropriate, and are thus less likely to seek help when the workplace is negatively impacting their mental health.

The report confirms that to improve outcomes for CALD workers in New Zealand, it is crucial that employers and relevant agencies better understand the link between national culture and attitudes towards workplace health and safety and compliance.

The Superdiversity Institute’s report is available at superdiversity.org. The report was supported by the Accident Compensation Corporation.

Mai Chen is managing partner of Chen Palmer and chairperson of the Superdiversity Institute of Law, Policy and Business.