​Building the Capacity of Community Health Workers

January 29, 2019

Without knowing their rights, many workers hurt on the job remain unaware of the protections and benefits that have been secured for them by advocates over the decades. This troubling issue is compounded by the fact that many medical professionals do not always ask a worker if an injury occurred on the job, meaning critical documentation needed for benefits is also absent.   

For many low-income workers, community health workers (CHW) are the first professional they meet to discuss care after an injury or illness. CHWs are public health workers who apply their unique understanding of the experience, language, and culture of the populations they serve to carry out culturally appropriate health education, information, and outreach.  

These individuals play a key role in assisting low-income immigrants in accessing the services they need. However, after conducting careful research, full-time MassCOSH volunteer and trainer Rick Rabin found that these critical caregivers are not required to learn about occupational health and safety and how dangerous jobs can affect low-income workers. Of all people, Rabin thought CHWs should know about all the rights injured workers have under law to best aid those in their care.  

“A well-trained CHW would know how to ask if an injury was acquired at work and could connect them with the care, workers’ compensation, and other services that can help heal them, provide missing wages, and return them to work faster,” said Rabin.  

Starting this past spring, Rabin has been putting together materials that have become part of MassCOSH’s Workplace Health and Safety Training for Community Health Workers. His goal is to make this training a mandatory part of securing a CHW license from the state.  

For maximum effectiveness, the training is being created in English and Spanish. “Right now, immigrant workers are clearly the ones who would need this training the most,” said Rabin.  

After taking the training, CHWs will have an increased understanding of workers’ compensation, Occupational Safety and Health Act rights, wage theft matters, and other abuses workers may experience. Workers experiencing these issues would then be connected to various organizations and resources that can expertly aid the worker in need.   

“Very often, workers will tell their doctor ‘I was hurt at work, I need a note,’” said Rabin “These notes will mistakenly leave out that the injury was work-related. This allows employers or the state to say the worker does not deserve benefits. This training would allow medical professionals and workers to know that documentation must state the role work has played in what happened [to the worker].”  

Rabin hopes this training will increase access to comprehensive benefits that workers’ compensation has been designed to pay for, such as physical therapy or training for a different occupation if the worker can no longer perform in that industry. Care would also come from funds generated by employers, not individual taxpayers.  

“There are about six or seven training programs that offer the courses needed to become a CHW, and as it stands now, none of them offer worker health and safety information. I hope this training will give them the expertize not only to learn more about the subject but also how to train others on the topic.”  

With immigrant workers suffering from relentless political attacks, this vulnerable minority has grown increasingly distrustful of government programs, including those designed to aid them after being hurt on the job. MassCOSH aims to use this training and CHW licensing reform as its newest tool to overcome this fear and help increase access to justice for workers hurt on the job.