September 26, 2023 / Abby Roberts

Implicit Bias and Microaggressions as Health and Safety Hazards

During the Civil Rights Movement of the '50s and '60s, federal laws and Supreme Court decisions struck down legal segregation and proclaimed equal employment opportunity in the United States. Yet bias based on race and other factors continues. Gallup found in 2021 that one in four Black and Hispanic employees had experienced discrimination at work.

Washington State-based industrial hygienist Eva Glosson explained that discrimination creates both physical and psychosocial workplace hazards. "If the workplace is not psychologically safe, then a worker cannot perform their duties in a safe way," they said, "because they're not going to be able to observe the hazards in the workplace."

Glosson outlined why discrimination is a health and safety hazard and what occupational and environmental health and safety professionals must know about it.

Key Concepts: Microaggressions and Implicit Bias

Overt discrimination still exists, but in modern workplaces, more subtle forms of bias are common. Glosson offered the following examples of comments often heard in work contexts:

  • "You speak English well."
  • "But where are you really from?"
  • "Your hairstyle isn't appropriate for a professional workplace."
  • "What did you and your husband do this weekend?"
  • "You come off as too aggressive. You should be more cheerful."

These comments may be received as microaggressions. Psychologist Derald Wing Sue, PhD, has extensively researched these everyday slights, insults, and indignities that are often made by well-intentioned people unaware of their demeaning or offensive behavior. Sue's work focuses on bias against people of color, especially Asian Americans, but microaggressions may also be experienced by women, disabled people, and members of the LGBTQ+ community, as Sue himself noted in an episode of the American Psychological Association's "Speaking of Psychology" podcast.

Glosson explained further that microaggressions may be nonverbal or environmental—such as workplaces that aren't accessible to disabled people or conference rooms exclusively named after white men. The recipients of microaggressions must do what Glosson described as "constantly having to defend yourself against the norm." After all, your physical appearance or personal background doesn't have any bearing on your fluency in English or the place you consider home. Your hairstyle isn't related to your degree of professionalism. Your partner may not be your husband. And you might be unfairly perceived as "aggressive” when you're doing your job the same way as colleagues who don't look like you.

Microaggressions are related to other behaviors identified in psychological research. In a study conducted first in 1988–1989 and repeated in 1998–1999 (PDF), John F. Dovidio, PhD, and Samuel L. Gaertner, PhD, asked white undergraduate students to recommend potential candidates for a peer counseling program. The candidates were identified as either white or Black and ranged from being clearly qualified to ambiguously qualified to clearly unqualified for the role. The students did not show racial bias when evaluating the clearly qualified or clearly unqualified candidates, but they were more likely to recommend the white candidate with ambiguous qualifications over the similarly qualified Black candidate.

Dovidio and Gaertner proposed that this less obvious form of prejudice characterizes the beliefs of many white Americans "who endorse egalitarian values, who regard themselves as nonprejudiced, but who discriminate in subtle, rationalizable ways." They coined the term aversive racism for the behavior they observed.

The broader term implicit bias encompasses automatic, unintentional assumptions that affect judgments, decisions, and behaviors. According to Glosson, "implicit bias is how we view and perceive others from our cultural and societal expectations of what is normal." Most people will occasionally make microaggressions, but they should still make efforts to check themselves.

"The people who are doing microaggressions typically don't understand that they're doing them," Glosson said. "But there's a lot of conversation happening about how we know better now, or a lot of us should know better now."

Workplace Discrimination as a Hazard

An OEHS professional may feel that microaggressions and implicit bias are relatively minor concerns compared to deadly physical and chemical exposures, but Glosson explained that discrimination both within and outside of the workplace puts workers under immense stress. A 2009 meta-analysis found that people who experienced discrimination had more negative mental and physical health, in part due to increased stress responses.

The problem can worsen if a worker experiencing microaggressions cannot resolve the problem. If the worker tries to confront the person responsible, they are likely to deny it—both to avoid punishment and because they are not aware of their behavior. This is one area where Glosson feels workplaces can develop better anti-bias training. "It's hard to be called in for something that you did wrong and to handle that professionally," they noted.

If the worker brings their concerns to their manager or supervisor, they may be dismissed. "What does the workplace have in place to actually educate their workers on what implicit bias is or what microaggressions are?" Glosson asked.

And if a worker tries to call out microaggressions on a colleague's behalf, "now, that's when you can have things escalating really negatively in the workplace," Glosson said, "especially today, because our climate outside of work can be pretty touchy." Studies in South Korea, Switzerland, and Nigeria have examined the links between discrimination and workplace violence. One study of U.S. workers aged 48 and older found that workers who reported discrimination were four to eight times more likely to experience mistreatment at work, including threats, harassment, and bullying.

"If a worker is experiencing this harm in the workplace, it can absolutely grow into a bigger issue, which we, as safety and health professionals, need to be aware of," Glosson stressed. "So, if we can learn about it from an earlier stage and reduce the harm … and understand it as early as possible, then we have a way better chance of not letting something as awful as violence in the workplace, like peer-to-peer violence … happen, and that's our job."

Even if the situation doesn't escalate to violence, microaggressions prevent workers from focusing on their jobs and reduce their trust in their coworkers. "If you're working in an industrial environment, how are you going to be paying attention to the forklift coming around the corner?" Glosson asked. "How are you going to be able to trust your coworkers to have your back if, say, you're in a healthcare setting, and you're dealing with a patient who might be coming after you? How do you trust the person who keeps on talking about your hair or talking about not being able to even pronounce your name correctly to come in and protect you?"

In one recent case, a company allowed workplace discrimination to continue until it had serious consequences for both workers and the employer. In November 2022, an investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that two men, both Black, had been subjected to slurs and other racial harassment during their employment at a California paper plant. When they had tried to report the harassment, their employer closed the investigation without interviewing the alleged harasser, claiming a "lack of evidence." EEOC required the company to pay $385,000 in lost wages and emotional distress damages to the two former employees.

The Ubiquity of Microaggressions and Bias

Implicit bias and microaggressions are present in every workplace, regardless of whether it's had an altercation or violent incident. "You will have microaggressions everywhere you go, so it's super important to know and to understand it," Glosson said. "And the more you understand it, the more you're going to see it happen, and the more opportunities you have to tactfully and properly contain that hazard."

Microaggressions and implicit bias are safety and health risks, not just problems for human resources departments to address. Consequently, OEHS professionals should minimize these forms of workplace discrimination before they worsen into larger, more serious problems by applying the hierarchy of controls, just as they would for any other hazard. "If this were a chemical, and we could reduce the harm before it escapes from the vat … why wouldn't we try to learn about it before it volatilizes?" Glosson said. "Why wouldn't we try to understand the chemical from its earliest, smallest amount of harm?"

They reiterated that everyone makes microaggressions and has implicit bias, even researchers who specialize in these topics. "Because everybody does it, we have to learn how to function with it and do our best to create a safe and healthy workplace, knowing that that is there," they continued. "Just like we would for any other hazard."

Eva Glosson and Ivan Pacheco will present the session "Unraveling Microaggressions and Unconscious Bias in the Workplace: A Holistic Approach to Worker Health and Safety" at the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for OEHS Professionals virtual conference on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023, from 1 to 2 p.m. Eastern time. AIHA University's DEI for OEHS Professionals conference will be held online between Oct. 16 and 20 and is free for AIHA members and nonmembers. To learn more about the virtual conference or to register, visit AIHA's website.

Abby Roberts

Abby Roberts is the assistant editor for The Synergist.


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