September 26, 2023

Battling Job Steering Against African-Americans: Key Strategies for a Safer Workplace

By: Jennifer Magdalene

Some 55 years ago in Memphis, Tennessee, two black sanitation workers—Echol Cole and Robert Walker, perished when they were crushed by a malfunction in the truck they were working on. One week, later, the city remained totally silent, leading to an historic strike by 1,300 black workers from the public works department. The workers demanded better wages and improved workplace safety. It’s incredible to think that in 2023, many African-American employees are still facing discrimination in the form of job steering—a process in which black workers are assigned to the most dangerous, unpleasant jobs.

The Rate of Workplace Fatalities for Black Americans Reaches a New High

Statistics published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that in 2021, 5,190 American workers died from work injuries. This was up by almost 9% from 2020, when many employees became jobless or worked from home owing to the pandemic. Of the 5,190 workers who perished, 653 were African-Americans. This represents an increase of 20.7% from 2020. The workplace fatality rate for black Americans is 4 per 100,000 workers. This is higher than the national rate. What’s more, African-Americans now represent 12.6% of all work-related fatal injuries. It is the highest percentage on the books since workplace fatality statistics have been collected.

What Are the Most Dangerous Jobs in the US?

Some of the riskiest occupations in the nation are not those you would expect. They include logger and tree cutters, fishers, roofers, miners, construction workers, drivers, refuse collectors, and electrical power line installers. Many black Americans are employed in industries such as construction and warehousing. For instance, transportation incidents are the highest cause of deaths for African-American workers. The second most significant cause of fatalities in this group is violence by persons or animals. Almost 25% of all workplace fatalities faced by African-Americans are the result of violence, compared to only 14.7% for all workers.

Taking Matters to The Stakeholders

The Occupational Safety and Health Administrated (OSHA) is currently collaborating with black-led union groups and work centers, to understand how they can provide better resources, give workers the tools they need, and provide the kind of training that will ensure equitable enforcement of anti-discrimination rules and regulations. The government needs to step in to ensure that job steering is strictly prohibited, imposing stiff fines on companies that breach the law.

Strategies for Employers to Embrace

There is also plenty that individual employers can do to lower the number of injuries and fatalities among black workers. It all starts by reaching out to black employees to show an authentic interest in their worries, concerns, and safety challenges. Managers should humbly let employees know that they are valued and appreciated, and that they always have a safe place to talk about their worries. They should additionally encourage the formation of small support groups, where workers can discuss their experiences or listen to others. Ideally, these meetings should be attended by mangers, so they can quickly implement changes that can make a big difference to the health and wellbeing of their workers. It goes without saying that companies should issue a formal statement on their zero level of tolerance for racial injustice and inequality. If companies build a reputation for having a sound and strong diversity and inclusion policy, they are far more likely to attract talented candidates who know they will not be subject to racial hostility or discrimination. Finally, company roles, goals, and procedures should be absolutely clear. Procedural rules should include precise information on how jobs are assigned and rotated, so that job steering can be completely avoided. The assignment of risky jobs should not be undertaken on a subjective basis.

The battle against job steering among African-American workers is far from over. The alarming rise in workplace fatalities among black workers indicates that many are still being assigned unsafe or risky tasks. Stakeholders, employers, and the government must collaborate to eradicate this discriminatory practice. Employers can also play a crucial role by fostering a supportive environment, encouraging open communication, and implementing clear procedures that prevent discrimination. By standing against racial injustice and inequality, companies can attract diverse talent and create a safer workplace for all.

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