In addition, there is a high illiteracy rate among Spanish-speaking workers, so it should not be assumed that written safety policies have been read and understood even when they have been translated into Spanish. Training and monitoring are needed to develop work habits that minimize risks of injury, and some companies are training English-speaking supervisors, superintendents, foremen and safety directors to learn Spanish so that they can communicate effectively with workers.
When trying to create a culture of safety, employers and their safety directors and supervisors should understand that Spanish-speaking workers tend to comply with safety policies and procedures when they are given an explanation for a rule, but are not as likely to follow orders merely because the supervisor tells them to do something. For this reason, additional time may be necessary to complete safety training.
Companies also need to understand that Spanish-speaking workers can be uncomfortable with interviews by OSHA and others in any litigation or administrative process. Workers need to be adequately prepared to participate in the process to ensure that they provide accurate and complete information. Otherwise, they may have a tendency to give the answers that they believe the person asking the questions wants to hear, and that can create some complications for the employer. For example, Spanish-speaking workers often will deny to OSHA that they have received training, even when they have attended numerous training sessions. When confronted with documentation showing their attendance, they will respond that they were nervous or didn’t understand the question.
In investigations of a fatality on the job, Spanish-speaking workers may be reluctant to tell the truth because they do not understand the no-fault foundation of the U.S. workers' compensation laws and believe that what they say may result in the denial of benefits to the family of the individual who passed away. Sometimes an explanation about workers' compensation benefits can lead to the truth.
Companies may want to consider submitting affidavits in Spanish and English and using translators at important interviews or hearings. It is always a good idea for a company to have its own translator at these proceedings to ensure that the official court translation is correct; often, it is not.
Companies also need to make a special effort of teaching employees to report unsafe situations or hazards to their supervisors.
As Spanish-speaking workers become an increasing presence on home building sites around the country, providing the knowledge, the tools and the resources for job safety needs to be a top priority of their employers. By finding the right expertise to open up good channels of communication, establishing an effective job safety program for Hispanic workers is a goal that can and must be achieved.
To read more in this issue about OSHA and NAHB resources for Hispanic worker safety programs, click here.
Julie A. Pace is a partner with Stinson Morrison Hecker LLP and regularly defends companies in cases involving employment and OSHA. She has represented the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona for more than a decade and is active in the residential construction community.