Spanish-speaking safety

April 2, 2018
Language barrier causing the death rate of Hispanic workers to rise

About the author: Sant is vice president of safety and education for the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, Washington, D.C.

Did you know that more than 270 Hispanic construction workers were killed on the job in 2000?  Those numbers surprised me, too. Hispanic workers are a growing and important part of the roadway construction industry, but their injury and death rates have reached record-high levels. It is time for the industry to quickly address this problem through better training and improved communications

The statistics are compelling. Hispanic workers make up nearly one-third of the roadway construction work force. During 2000, the rate of occupational fatalities for all Hispanic workers increased 24% to 815 deaths; that increase was nearly 100% attributable to construction deaths. In 2001, the number of Hispanic deaths climbed to 891. Construction was not the only reason for the jump, but was a part of the high number of fatalities.

At the same time the death rate for Hispanics is rising, the rates for whites and blacks are falling. In 2001, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the fatality rate for whites fell for the sixth year in a row and the rate for black workers fell for the second year in a row.  Yet for the construction industry, with its high number of Hispanic workers, 2001 (the latest year for which we have statistics) closed with fatalities reaching their highest level since the Fatality Census was first conducted in 1992, with 267 deaths in the heavy and highway trades alone.

Failure to communicate

Hispanic workers are filling construction jobs--with traditionally high injury and fatality rates--in increasing numbers. Some projections show Hispanic workers holding 47% of all construction jobs by 2010.

The willingness of Hispanic workers to fill hazardous construction jobs is certainly one of the reasons for high rates, but not the only one. A large portion of this workforce is immigrant; and for many, English is a second language. Industry professionals believe that Hispanic workers are not receiving the necessary safety and health training for their jobs; and in many circumstances where training is provided, they do not fully understand what is being taught.

Another possible reason is many workers prize their employment and are reluctant to complain about dangerous working conditions for fear of dismissal--real or perceived. The illegal immigration status of some workers compounds their fear of complaining. A large portion of Hispanic workers continue to support immediate and extended family that remain in their native countries. Recent reports have documented that one of the largest sources of U.S. currency into many Latin American economies is derived from family working in the U.S. and sending earnings home.

The incentives are not always aligned properly to ensure safe working conditions for Hispanic workers. Yet, many contractors report that without their Hispanic workers, they would not be competitive in the low-bid roadway construction industry.

Trying to understand

No matter how one looks at the future of roadway construction, Hispanic workers will figure prominently in the work force. Employers must begin now to address the problematic injury and death rates for this valuable workforce or they will suffer the emotional, financial and demoralizing setbacks that inevitably come with a workplace fatality.

The American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) has been tracking this problem for some time and is developing safety and health training programs in English and Spanish to help employers address communication challenges with Spanish-speaking workers. 

These tools include a video helping workers to avoid collisions in roadway construction zones; an OSHA approved 10-hour training program developed with the National Safety Council; and a safety orientation program for new hires, developed with the Laborers' Union, the National Asphalt Pavement Association and the Operating Engineers Union.

Spanish training materials are just the beginning. Employers will face challenges with worker literacy and varying dialects. Many Hispanic workers do not read or write well in their native language, and not all Spanish is the same. There are literally hundreds of different Spanish dialects emerging from over 30 Spanish-speaking countries. 

A long-term approach to language barriers may be to develop a type of "English as a Second Language" program in the workplace. This follows the centuries-old process of creating value in workers by increasing their skills. Employers also may want to create an incentive program for workers to improve their language skills, such as assistance in obtaining a valid driver's license.

If employers will invest in their Hispanic work force, they will be rewarded with hard working, loyal employees who are able to complete their tasks safely.

About the Author

Brad Sant

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