How to Keep Your Hispanic Workers Safe

IN ADDITION TO all the training and your regular procedures to keep your workers safe, you have to overcome a series of cultural obstacles to ensure the safety of immigrant Hispanic workers. First of all, Hispanic men may feel they are too macho to take care of themselves. Granted, abroad there is some giggling about the American obsession with safety. We also have a great time with warning labels.

IN ADDITION TO all the training and your regular procedures to keep your workers safe, you have to overcome a series of cultural obstacles to ensure the safety of immigrant Hispanic workers. First of all, Hispanic men may feel they are too macho to take care of themselves.

Granted, abroad there is some giggling about the American obsession with safety. We also have a great time with warning labels. In my native Buenos Aires, Argentina, I bought my first baby a bath thermometer in the shape of a ship that came from the United States and its warning label read: “This bath thermometer does not replace adult supervision.” How could it? Why would anyone even think that?

So the second obstacle is the belief that warnings are a result of the American legal system and bear no connection with actual safety.

Latin Americans, however, have developed a survival system that does not depend on the legal system or corporate good will. Workers follow the instructions of people they trust and have the experience needed for a particular task. They also follow suggestions that make sense to them.

It is most effective to show the reasons why something should or should not be done. They should also be taught that in the United States they might as well follow the safety instructions on tools and machinery because they closely resemble what they need to do to protect themselves.

This may be obvious to you but not to your Hispanic worker, who is used to either not seeing warnings or ignoring the ones he sees. Many things that do not pass U.S. regulations are then sold in Latin America where those regulations do not exist.

The rules, per se, are not a big motivator. The sign: “Do not litter, it’s the law,” is probably the least effective one for new immigrants from Latin America. Something like: “Would you like your child to pick that up and put it in his mouth?” would be more like it.

A third obstacle is that Latin Americans do not trust the law to be something intended to be good for them. They need to see how a rule has a positive impact in order to follow it (at least more happily).

The fourth problem is that these guys really need to work. Yes, we all do, but they do to a greater degree. Add that to the “authority” concept.

Latin America may be less racist but it’s more classist than the United States. Your relationship with your workers is a small evolution from the “patrón-peón” relationship. The authority is perceived as the all-powerful source of income, justice and life without which the worker’s existence and that of his family would fade away. These are workers who are reluctant to question safety conditions before jumping into a trench or requesting a harness. It is hard for them to brush off class orientation even after migration to a new country. Fear of authority plus extreme need to work equals a recipe for workers to work in any condition they are offered.

One thing I can tell you, they will be much better prepared after having training based on the risks and consequences, not the rules. They will be more willing to follow the rules because they are the ways to make sure they get back home to their families every night. Another good motivator is that people protected with safety gear work faster and potentially earn more for their time. This is another positive impact for the family — more income production.

“Should you reuse your harness once you have fallen and it has saved your life? No, you should take it home and show it to your son because, thanks to it, you are back home with him.”

Does that sound over the top to you? Think again. It is exactly what makes these men tick. It is what they can use when a co-worker makes fun of them for playing it safe.

“No, I am not a girl, I just care to see my family again, don’t you?”

You have to provide tools to help their transition from thinking that risking their lives is macho to thinking being safe is the way to protect their family.

Make sure you send your Hispanic workers to the next DOL forum for Hispanic construction workers. The North Carolina Department of Labor runs a particularly good one. Workers here receive an NCDOL Certificate of Attendance in English and Spanish, refreshingly well written in both languages.

I am sure I would not find the culprits among the readers of this magazine, but a few attendees spoke of being insulted at work on a regular basis and wanted to know if that was “normal.” Others said that when requesting more safety gear or measures, they were threatened with being reported to the immigration authorities.

Well, at least those who attended the North Carolina session now know that both behaviors are illegal and those who use such practices should develop new motivational strategies.

Marina Crosby is president of 2Americas Corp. in Cary, N.C. She is a professor at El Salvador University and an instructor at Wake Tech Community College in North Carolina and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She can be reached by phone at 919/319-9243, or via e-mail at MCrosby@2Americas.com.