Reaching across barriers

Organizations are bridging the gap in safety training for Hispanic construction workers

By Ashley Johnson, associate editor

  • About one-third of Hispanic worker deaths occur in the construction industry.
  • Experts say a lack of knowledge of hazards, inadequate training and supervision, and language and cultural barriers put Hispanic workers at a higher risk for injury.
  • The Occupational Training and Education Consortium at Rutgers University and a New Jersey-based immigrant worker advocacy group have collaborated to conduct research that would improve safety and health training for Hispanic workers.

When Michele Ochsner, co-director of the Occupational Training and Education Consortium at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ, analyzed data from focus groups consisting of Hispanic day laborers in New Jersey, she found the workers were concerned about safety but often lacked knowledge of or access to proper personal protective equipment. Some workers tried to protect themselves on the job, Ochsner said, but their efforts actually might have put them at further risk for injury.

“One of the scary things was that we heard a number of people talking about trying to rig a harness when the employer didn’t provide fall protection harnesses,” Ochsner recalled. “And wrapping a rope around your legs and shoulders can be really dangerous. It can essentially cut off the circulation. It may be almost as dangerous as falling.”

The focus group data, published in 2008 and funded by a NIOSH grant to the Silver Spring, MD-based Center for Construction Research and Training, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, underscored the need for better health and safety training for Hispanic workers. And the partnership behind it reflects the larger outreach effort by community organizations, unions and other groups to make that happen.

OTEC worked with staff from New Labor Partnerships, an immigrant worker advocacy group in New Brunswick, to facilitate the focus groups as part of a multiproject collaboration to address the high number of injuries and fatalities among Hispanic workers. Groups such as New Labor take OSHA’s safety message to workers, but they also can do what a federal agency cannot – build personal relationships with workers by returning to the same location week after week.

Lou Kimmel, director of field mobilization for New Labor, said the resulting level of trust puts community-based organizations in a position to educate Hispanic workers and empower them to speak up about safety hazards. “That culture of safety doesn’t always exist, so we’re kind of filling that void to create that culture of safety where there is none,” he said.

Fatal problem

Federal data indicates Hispanics face a higher risk of workplace fatality, with about one-third of those deaths occurring in the construction industry. According to a 2008 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11,303 Hispanic workers died from work-related injuries, including homicides and suicides, from 1992 to 2006. That represents about 13 percent of all U.S. work-related fatalities. Although the death rate for Hispanic workers decreased during those years to 5 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2006, it was 25 percent higher than the overall U.S. worker fatality rate of 4.

Preliminary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed a 17 percent decrease in the number of Hispanic workplace fatalities, to 774 in 2008 from 937 in 2007. However, it is likely that the final 2008 fatality data, scheduled for release in April, will be revised upward.

CDC said the disparity was especially pronounced among foreign-born workers, largely those from Mexico. Among these workers, the workplace death rate from 2003 to 2006 was 5.9, compared with 3.5 for U.S.-born Hispanics. Experts say immigrants from countries with minimal safety and health enforcement might not be aware of their workplace rights in the United States. Also, undocumented workers may keep silent about safety concerns for fear of retaliation. Javier Arias, chairman and CEO of the Hispanic Contractors Association de Tejas in Dallas, has worked in construction for the past 30 years. Originally from Mexico, Arias said the difference in safety and health enforcement between the United States and his native country is “like day and night.”

CDC suggested reasons for the higher fatality rate among Hispanic workers include inadequate training and supervision, and lack of knowledge of safety hazards, which are complicated by the language barrier and different literacy levels. Ochsner said a day laborer who is picked up on the corner might not understand what he has been hired to do until he arrives at the site. “Most of the workers in our project had not had any previous construction experience, and they were just trying to figure it out on the job,” she said.

Economic desperation and the transient nature of day labor induce some workers to keep quiet. “The mentality is that you’re here for a short amount of time and you’re here to make money, so health and safety … becomes more of an afterthought once the problem happens,” Kimmel said.

Cultural values can come into play as well. Some Hispanic workers may not express concerns about safety out of loyalty to their boss or a belief that it is disrespectful to question authority. However, Arias said culture runs both ways – sometimes the culture in the U.S. construction industry does not encourage speaking up.

Whatever the reasons for the workplace deaths, Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis has made it clear she is concerned. Last year, she committed to host a national dialogue and action summit on construction safety and the Latino community in 2010. In a June 29 speech, Solis called the rate of Hispanic construction deaths “alarming” and announced she was sending more inspectors to Texas as part of a construction safety initiative.

Arias expressed optimism that the initiative will make a difference, but he stressed enforcement alone is not enough. “It was a good move to send a group of inspectors, but again, it must be together with training. By itself, it’s not going to work,” he said.

Federal meets local

In 2001, OSHA created the Hispanic Task Force, now known as the Diverse Workplace Issues Group, to improve its outreach to Hispanic workers. The agency offers a variety of resources, including a Spanish-language Web page; a compliance assistance page for employers; English-to-Spanish and Spanish-to-English dictionaries; a national hotline with a Spanish-language option; and coordinators in each region to assist with outreach, education and training.

On a local level, OSHA has formed alliances with organizations such as the Hispanic Contractors Association to provide training. Dean Wingo, assistant regional administrator for cooperative and state programs for OSHA Region VI, said in an e-mail to Safety+Health that the partnership with HCA has resulted in more than 2,000 workers, many of whom speak Spanish, receiving OSHA 10-hour construction training. He described the training as a “real community effort” that involves other organizations and local community colleges.

The value of those partnerships goes beyond training, according to Suzanne Teran, coordinator of public programs for the Labor Occupational Health Program at the University of California, Berkeley. She said that for workers who may distrust the government, community-based organizations are “one of the most effective ways to provide information that people will believe is credible.” Organizations can then provide a link to OSHA for workers who need to file complaints.

“The reality is that Cal/OSHA and federal OSHA, they have such limited enforcement resources as it is. That’s where community groups, I think, can assist in that role,” Teran said.

Making training relevant

OSHA standards require employers to provide training in a language their workers understand. But ensuring comprehension is not only a matter of translating materials in Spanish.

Unions have come up with innovative ways to minimize the language barrier and provide training that resonates with workers, according to a 2007 draft of a report by the Labor Occupational Health Program at UC Berkeley. The report, prepared for CCRT, said one union developed “language cards” to show phonetic pronunciation for common workplace phrases in English and Spanish. And an ironworkers union even allowed workers taking a certification exam to listen to the questions in Spanish through headphones as they answered the multiple-choice questions written in English.

OTEC and New Labor are looking at ways to make OSHA 10-hour construction courses for Hispanics more learner-centered. In contrast to typical courses, which rely heavily on lecturing and PowerPoint presentations, these classes consist of workers in small groups using fact sheets and their own experiences to answer a series of questions, Ochsner said. She added that students appreciate hands-on training, so coordinators brought in a safety harness to allow workers to try one on and become familiar with how the straps connect.

The classes are facilitated by Hispanic construction workers and become a dry run for solving problems on the job. “We try to help people practice those communication skills that are probably just as important as knowing how to use a nail gun,” Ochsner said. “Not that we tell them to walk off the job, refuse to do the work, but that it encourages them to think critically and look at the health and safety consequences, and if they are able to, try and take whatever steps they can to avoid serious injury.”

Two-way street

Outreach does not have to end at the jobsite. Employers can play a critical role in helping their Hispanic workforce become more aware of safety hazards.

Valerie Stakes, safety trainer and manager at RQ Construction Inc. in Carlsbad, CA, stressed the importance of providing ongoing bilingual safety training in the classroom and in the field. She said her company offers a bilingual OSHA 30-hour construction program, as well as other specialty in-house classes. RQ Construction’s safety department includes authorized outreach trainers, and an effort is made to involve bilingual supervisors and lead workers in day-to-day and classroom training.

“Providing safety training in your workers’ native language ensures they completely understand the material and demonstrates how much you value them as an integral part of your workforce,” she said.

Stakes recommends managers with a largely Hispanic workforce learn key construction and safety-related phrases in Spanish. “You don’t have to be fluent,” she said. “Just being able to say ‘please put on your hard hat, please put on your glasses’ can do wonders for safety, production and morale.”

Although it is not possible to quantify exactly how many Hispanic worker injuries and fatalities would be prevented with training, New Labor’s Kimmel said anecdotal evidence suggests workers are applying what they have learned.

He told the story of a construction worker who took a course where he learned about the dangers of silica dust and dry cutting. “He took the book to his boss and showed it to him, [and told him] ‘This is not good. How about wet cutting?’” Kimmel said. “And the boss, I guess he was a good one, he changed his practice on that.”

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