Safety worries spark push to undo language barrier

Sacramento Business Journal

Twice a week Ken Sullivan shows up at work at 6:15 a.m. and joins about a dozen other company superintendents as they groggily struggle with simple Spanish greetings and los dias de la semana.

Although the Latin he learned as an altar boy may help, Mr. Sullivan, a safety officer at Devcon Construction, says he’s got a long way to go before he can communicate the company’s complex safety standards to a construction crew of mostly Spanish speakers.

“That’s why I’m taking the class, to be able to better communicate to prevent the potential injury from occurring,” he says.

Mr. Sullivan estimates that about 45 percent of the work force at Devcon uses Spanish as a native language. Hispanic workers, he says, are involved in as many as 50 percent of on-site accidents.

“You can point to a hard hat and they know they have to wear one,” says Mr. Sullivan of the workers. “You can point to their eyes and say, ‘glasses.’ They pick up little key words. But some of the more difficult things are when you’re talking about fall protection. You have to physically point to safety gear and show them how to put it on.”

Because construction-related accidents disproportionately involve Hispanics, state and federal agencies have increasingly focused on bilingual education and outreach. Last year U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao announced an initiative “to ensure the safety and promote the prosperity” of the more than 14.5 million Hispanic workers in America.

In 2001 Hispanics comprised 18 percent of the construction work force, according to data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Department of Labor. Of the construction fatalities in 2001, more than a third involved Hispanic workers, according to federal data.

Safety information is increasingly available to Spanish-speaking employers and employees. At the Web site of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is a Spanish-language page with information about OSHA’s mission, how to electronically file work-related complaints, worker and employer rights and responsibilities, and a list of resources.

While OSHA has increased spending on safety programs, however, it is still researching whether the Hispanic fatality rate is higher because this group tends to work in riskier jobs — as roofers or laborers, for example — or because they receive inadequate training.

More bilingual information is great, but the reality is that underpaid workers don’t have time to sit down at a computer and research their rights on an OSHA Web site, says Daniel Garcia, a former roofer who once toppled from a building and broke his elbow and wrist. Mr. Garcia now serves as secretary-treasurer of Roofers & Waterproofers Local 95 in Santa Clara and says Hispanic workers often lack the training they need to perform safely, especially in non-union work sites.

“The non-union sector is concentrated on getting money out of the people, on taking people off the streets and putting them to work at low wages,” he says. “There are some pretty sad stories about people coming to work for just a couple days and they die.”

The problem, however, can’t be attributed solely to language, Mr. Garcia says.

“When it comes to making money, language is no problem. Why should it make a difference in safety?”

For fiscal 2002, OSHA exceeded its goal of 36,400 employer inspections. Average penalties imposed on companies for serious violations rose from $930 in 2001 to $977 in 2002.

In California, the number of construction-site inspections last year more than doubled, at 3,308 inspections, up from 1,515 inspections in 1999, according to Dean Fryer, spokesman for the California Department of Industrial Relations, which oversees the California Division of Occupational Safety, known informally as Cal-OSHA.

However, in Santa Clara County and the southern part of Alameda County, the number of state safety inspections among construction sites has declined since 1999. According to Cal-OSHA, there were 102 inspections and 169 violations noted in 1999, while in 2002 there were 88 inspections and 106 violations noted.

Fewer inspections have occurred in recent years because Cal-OSHA resources have been redirected to Sacramento and San Bernardino counties, where there is more building, says Mr. Fryer.

A recent reorganization at the Department of Industrial Relations has resulted in more inspection oversight, but there is more work to do, he says.

“We’re reaching more people with more information, including more immigrant workers with information about their rights as an employee,” Mr. Fryer says. “But, the population out there is huge. The risk is always going to be out there.”

Several occupational safety and health bills introduced in the California Legislature seek to improve conditions in the industry.

Assembly Bill 2752 calls for criminal penalties for employers and agents for taking illegal adverse action against safety and health whistle blowers. AB 2837 reforms the state Labor Code with regard to Cal-OSHA investigations following workplace deaths or serious injuries and would require bilingual services to be provided at hearings, interviews and inspections. AB 2837 would make an employer’s failure to immediately report a serious injury or death subject to a fine of between $5,000 and $25,000.

Rodney Spencley, safety officer at DPR Construction Inc. in Redwood City, estimates that as many as 70 percent of the craftsmen who work with DPR are native Spanish speakers. The company’s injury rate, however, is better than the national average he says, in part because the company puts a strong emphasis on communication.

Project managers and engineers at DPR take classes to help them understand common phrases in Spanish, as well as to learn how to present DPR materials with an interpreter. Spanish classes for English-speaking supervisors are also available. Attendance is not mandatory, Mr. Spencley says, but “strongly suggested.”

“This isn’t brain surgery to look out at your work force, and if you recognize that half the people don’t understand what you’re saying then it’s not a collaborative work force,” he says.

JENNIFER PITTMAN is a freelance writer based in Santa Cruz.

This article is published (here.)


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