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Recognising diversity among workers: Migrants and MSDs

Given the characteristics of the jobs that they often undertake, migrants are more exposed to work-related safety and health risks, including the development or aggravation of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), than many other workers. With International Migrants Day taking place on 18 December, it is the perfect time to further explore how migrants are exposed to the risk of MSDs, and how these risks can be mitigated.


‘3D’ work: dirty, dangerous and demanding

Much like female and LGBTI workers, migrant workers are a specific demographic that are more frequently exposed to a range of work-related risk factors, including MSD-related risks. Statistically, migrant workers are less likely to possess vocational qualifications, which make them more likely to work in sectors and jobs that require predominantly manual labour. Indeed, 40% of migrant workers spend at least a quarter of their time moving heavy loads, compared to 31% of native workers, and 51% spend at least a quarter of their time in tiring or painful positions, compared to 43% of native workers; both of which represent significant risk factors for MSDs.

As a group, migrant workers are more likely to work in ‘3D’ jobs – roles which are either dirty, dangerous or demanding – or a combination of all three. Consequently, they are also more frequently exposed to a number of MSD risk factors ranging from vibration to extreme temperatures and are also more exposed to accidents at work. It is often the case that migrant workers work in 3D jobs because they have no choice or viable alternative, however working in poor conditions puts pressure on the musculoskeletal system.

More than physical: exposure to organisational and psychosocial risk factors

However, the vulnerability of migrant workers to the development or aggravation of MSDs cannot be attributed solely to physical factors such as the lifting of heavy loads or the conditions in which they work. Migrants are also exposed to organisational or psychosocial risk factors, which can also affect their musculoskeletal health.

In terms of organisational issues, migrant workers may be subjected to longer working hours, job insecurity, temporary work or lower salaries which require them to take on multiple jobs to make ends meet. In these scenarios, the migrant worker will be required to spend more time working and therefore be subjected to a higher level of exposure to MSD risk factors. Since they are working abroad, they may also not be familiar with their rights as an employee in their host county, which may exacerbate or prolong any existing health issues. What’s more, their status as a migrant worker may mean that they lack career opportunities within the organisation and have limited negotiating power with their employer, increasing the amount of time spent in the same role and further multiplying the chances of developing an MSD.

Migrant workers are also exposed to a high number of psychosocial risk factors. These can include discrimination,  bullying, or harassment, or the fact that many migrant workers are required to undertake temporary or precarious work, which contributes to their stress and puts pressure on their musculoskeletal system. They may also have a limited knowledge of their host country’s language and culture, contributing to a feeling of isolation and mental health issues, increasing the chance of developing an MSD. Finally, they may have limited access to vital support services, such as housing associations or healthcare providers.

Compounded risks: the double burden of MSDs and Covid-19

Migrants often play a key role in an organisation, fulfilling physically demanding, essential positions that require contact with others. They are also less likely to work in roles that can be performed from home via teleworking. Today, this puts them in the unusual position of being more likely to be exposed to both MSD risk factors and Covid-19. One in every four migrant workers are employed in ‘double burden of risk’ positions, compared to one in every six native workers (28% versus 17%). By considering this double burden in a prevention strategy, employers can help to protect migrant workers on both fronts.

What’s the solution?

Despite the level of risk faced by migrant workers, there are steps an organisation can take to reduce instances of MSDs among the demographic. Performing regular and detailed risk assessments that take into account diversity among workers can help to provide a holistic view of the level of risk. It’s also important to take a demography-sensitive approach to prevention by ensuring that any preventive measures are specifically tailored to migrant workers, and that migrants are represented throughout the organisation on work councils or other occupational bodies. Finally, businesses can help educate their members of staff by offering information and training to identify and eradicate socio-cultural prejudices, helping migrant workers better integrate into the workforce and lowering the number of MSD risk factors they are exposed to.

For it to be successful, an MSD prevention strategy should take into account diversity among employees – especially when it comes to migrant workers. By recognising the demographic independently, and tailoring preventive measures, companies can lessen the risk of MSDs for migrant workers. For more information, visit the diversity priority area on the Healthy Workplaces Lighten the Load campaign website, and follow the campaign on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.