Apr 15, 2003

Spanish-speaking safety

Language barrier causing the death rate of Hispanic workers to rise

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

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