Bridging the safety gap with Hispanic workers

Sept. 1, 2006
THE GROWTH OF the Hispanic civilian labor force is exploding, according to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, with a projection of nearly 23.8 million workers by 2012. At the same time, statistics show how this demographic is no longer just settling in Sunbelt states such as California, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Additionally, states including Wisconsin, Iowa, North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia

THE GROWTH OF the Hispanic civilian labor force is exploding, according to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, with a projection of nearly 23.8 million workers by 2012. At the same time, statistics show how this demographic is no longer just settling in Sunbelt states such as California, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Additionally, states including Wisconsin, Iowa, North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia are experiencing a huge jump in their Hispanic populations.

While many Hispanics coming into the United States have often sought work in the agricultural sector, the emerging trade of choice is construction. In fact, the BLS estimates that Hispanics comprise nearly one-third of the construction workforce. For these workers, construction offers the prospect of steady work, decent wages and an opportunity for advancement.

Many contractors and construction associations are increasingly directing their outreach, recruiting and training efforts toward the Hispanic population in hope of attracting a new source of talented workers.

Safety in numbers?
For most contractors, keeping work-ers safe and their jobsites accident-free is a huge priority and an ongoing challenge. For those with a largely Hispanic workforce, however, maintaining a strong safety record can prove to be even more daunting.

The BLS indicates that as the number of Hispanics entering the construction workforce has increased, so has their rate of construction-related injuries and fatalities. In 2003, Hispanics recorded the highest number of fatalities among all racial/ethnic groups, according to the BLS. The most frequent fatal injuries were falls and struck-by-an-object incidents, and all incidents were most common in foreign-born Hispanics vs. those born in the United States.

A large factor contributing to these high statistics is the English/Spanish language barrier. Workers with limited English skills can't understand the directions being given by their supervisors, nor can they ask questions. Instead, workers will often just nod their heads in agreement, rather than admit that they don't understand. At the same time, for contractors whose supervisors don't speak Spanish, providing proper training can be difficult.

Education and literacy also affect job safety. Hispanics who come to the United States with a limited education may not be able to read. Thus, even if an employer provides written training materials in Spanish, workers may not be able to read them.

At the same time, Hispanics often have a different perspective when it comes to jobsite safety. For example, working on a high-pitched roof without fall protection may not seem un-safe to a worker who has risked his life crossing the border.

In addition, some Hispanic workers won't question authority, even when they know the conditions are unsafe. No one wants to be perceived as a "whistle-blower" rather than as a team player. And because having a job is considered to be an honor, workers don't want to do anything to jeopardize it. Undocumented workers are even more reluctant to report jobsite dangers. Not only do they fear losing their jobs, they fear being deported.

Adding to the high rate of Hispanic injuries and deaths are those employers who have little regard for worker safety; regardless of what language their employees speak. Here, workers receive no education regarding their rights to a safe workplace, let alone any formal safety training. These companies are likely to under-report fatalities and injuries, particularly when undocumented workers are involved.

Meeting the challenge
The high number of Hispanic worker injuries and fatalities has not gone unnoticed by the U. S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and by the construction industry overall. According to OSHA's interpretation of 1910.1200(h), if employers have a training requirement, they must provide it in a language the worker can understand.

Fortunately, an increasing number of available resources are designed to help improve worker safety. OSHA has developed the OSHA en Español Web-site (, a Spanish-language option for its 800-number, and online publications such as cards, posters and public service announcements in Spanish. To help employers and employees bridge the language barrier, online bilingual dictionaries contain common safety terms.

In addition, nonprofit organizations can apply for OSHA's Susan Harwood Training Grants, which help groups develop training and education programs for employers and workers on the recognition, avoidance, and prevention of safety and health hazards in their workplaces. Some associations that have recently received grants to develop Spanish-language construction training include the Labor-Management Construction Safety Alliance, Boston; the National Roofing Contractors Association, Rosemont, Ill.; the Organization of Hispanic Contractors, Irving, Texas; and the Roofers and Waterproofers Research and Education Joint Trust Fund, Washington.

At the same time, associations such as the Associated General Contractors, the U.S. Hispanic Contractors Association, the Mechanical Contractors Association of America, the Associated Builders and Contractors and the National Association of Home Builders are developing bilingual safety materials and training aids, and offering safety and construction classes in Spanish.

Internal communication
In addition to taking advantage of these educational resources, worker safety can be further improved by facilitating communication between Hispanic workers and their supervisors. One means is for supervisors to learn basic Spanish language skills, as well as key construction terminology and

phrases. As a result, toolbox talks could become much more effective, particularly when combined with Spanish-language materials, hands-on demonstrations and visual aids.

Furthermore, clear communication in the field can make a difference between life and death. Knowing the right words in Spanish will enable your field force to tell workers (whether they are yours or those of another trade working on the same project) that they are in immediate danger.

Learning your workers' language can also go far in terms of improving employee morale and building relationships. It's important to remember that fluency isn't necessary. Just the effort to communicate will be highly appreciated, as it shows that you care about your workers and their culture.

At the same time, Hispanic workers should be encouraged to improve their English skills. Many apprenticeship programs across the country include English-as-a-Second Language classes as a standard part of their curriculum. ESL classes can also be found through universities, community colleges and some training firms.

To reinforce their language skills during in-house training sessions, give employees materials in both English and Spanish, if possible. This way, they can look at the materials side-by-side and compare the construction terminology in both languages.

Finally, helping your Hispanic employees improve their English is not only critical to their safety on the job; it's key to their professional development. Along with providing the right safety and technical training, English classes will allow them to move from the field into managerial positions. As a result, you will have a group of well-trained, bilingual supervisors, who can make the next round of employee recruiting and training much simpler, as well as take your company's safety program to the next level.

Valerie Stakes is president of Multilingual Training Solutions, a firm that works with contractors to meet the needs of the growing Spanish-speaking construction workforce. An experienced trainer, facilitator and translator, Stakes is past president and a founding board member of the association Women in HVACR and was an editor at Contracting Business magazine for seven years. She has a master's degree in translation and interpreting. She can be reached at [email protected]

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