May 28, 2021

Protecting Minorities During COVID-19

By Ed Rutkowski

May 28, 2021—On Feb. 23, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man, was shot to death as he jogged near his Georgia home by a white gunman. A few weeks later, much of the United States economy shut down due to concerns about COVID-19, which the World Health Organization declared a pandemic on March 11. On March 13, Breonna Taylor, a Black medical worker in Louisville, Kentucky, was killed in a botched police raid. In the months afterward, misinformation about the pandemic led to racist and xenophobic attacks against Asian Americans. COVID-19 case numbers swelled, with hospitalizations and deaths disproportionately affecting Black, Hispanic, and Native American people. Then, on May 25, George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, setting off protests across the country.

As the country’s racial reckoning and public health crisis lurched along side by side, members of AIHA’s Women in IH Special Interest Group—including Subena Colligan, Jennifer Hsu, and Ivory Iheanacho—were discussing the effects of COVID-19 on minority communities, and they decided it was time to act. The group started a collaboration with AIHA’s Social Concerns Committee and Minority Special Interest Group intended to raise awareness of issues of race and the pandemic among OEHS professionals. One outcome of this collaboration is the AIHA guidance document “The Lens of Minority Populations in the Workplace During COVID-19” (PDF), which was published in December.

In a recorded presentation delivered this week as part Virtual AIHce EXP 2021, Colligan and Hsu shared practical suggestions conference attendees can use to work toward equitable distribution of occupational health and safety services. Colligan and Hsu presented three recommendations that OEHS professionals can use to effectively engage with the racial inequities presented by the pandemic. The first step, Hsu explained, is for each individual to become aware of his or her implicit biases and actively fight them. Recognizing implicit bias involves paying attention to the language we use, exercising empathy, treating others with respect, and practicing inclusion and active listening.

“Everyone has implicit bias,” Hsu said. “Whether or not we want to acknowledge it, it’s there.”

The second recommendation is to base decisions on data. Colligan urged OEHS professionals to be open to the idea that certain exposure groups within their worker population could be affected by the pandemic differently than others. She pointed to CDC data showing that Blacks and Hispanics have experienced rates of death and hospitalization from COVID that are significantly higher than their share of the total U.S. population. (According to the most recent data from CDC, when adjusted for age, Hispanics have suffered 36.6 percent of COVID-19 deaths but make up only 19.4 percent of the population, while non-Hispanic Blacks account for 22.5 percent of deaths but only 12.7 percent of the population.)

“Race relations are really difficult conversations, and that’s okay,” Colligan said. “We’re not asking anyone to solve this after AIHce EXP. We’re asking you to use data to make decisions the same way you would address hazardous decisions in your workplace any day.”

Colligan and Hsu’s third recommendation is for OEHS professionals to implement a Total Worker Health approach. TWH is a NIOSH program that integrates protection from occupational safety and health hazards with promotion of injury and illness prevention efforts to advance worker well-being. A key aspect of TWH is a modified version of the hierarchy of controls. Presented as an inverted pyramid, the TWH hierarchy recommends eliminating working conditions that threaten safety, health, and well-being; substituting health-enhancing policies, programs, and practices; redesigning the work environment; educating workers; and encouraging personal change.

Colligan challenged attendees to consider the ways COVID-19 might have a greater impact on their workforce. Workers without paid sick leave might be more likely to come to work when ill because they need the money. Perks such as rideshare programs increase the likelihood of disease transmission, and drivers may feel obligated to come to work sick because their coworkers are relying on them. “The Lens of Minority Populations in the Workplace During COVID-19” (PDF) contains a checklist OEHS professionals can use to help determine whether their workforce is likely to be disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

“The discussion surrounding minority populations is deeply impactful to all of us,” Hsu said. “Opening a conversation is a step but working to address the issues in a lasting and meaningful way is the goal.”

Ed Rutkowski is editor in chief of The Synergist.

Related: Read “Implementing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Workplace: How DEI Improves Psychological Safety Culture” in the March 2021 Synergist.