Hispanic Construction Workers Putting Safety First
By Dennis McCafferty
On a typical workday, Spanish-speaking workers will account for 20 of Fernando Pagés’ 25 crew members. Making sure that each one of those workers is safe on the job site is his first priority, Pagés says, but a unique set of challenges means that attaining this goal is easier said than done.
“Obviously, there’s the language barrier,” says Pagés, who owns Brighton Construction, an award-winning Lincoln, Neb.-based home building business. “Not only is it impossible for workers to read safety instructions on equipment in English, but they often arrive in this country functionally illiterate. They’re from the working class in Latin America. They have a difficult time reading instructions in Spanish as well, except for the very basic details.”
In order to make sure that his crew operates safely, Pagés is on the job site all the time, stressing to his Spanish-speaking workers that he’d rather have them take a longer time to do a job than do it quickly and risk having an accident.
“It’s not only in a business owner’s interest out of liability, but out of interest for them personally,” he says. “I ask them all kinds of questions before they start on a job. Do they understand how to properly use the equipment? Is there any procedure in the job that makes them feel uncomfortable? I want them to know it’s OK to talk about this.”
As more and more Hispanic workers enter the home building industry, a rising number of builders and remodelers are responding to this reality. Given recent statistics that have emerged about construction injuries and deaths among Spanish-speaking workers, it’s clear that the problem needs urgent and consistent attention in order to be addressed.
According to recent findings from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Hispanic workers face greater risks from work-based injuries, and the construction industry accounts for one out of three of those deaths. From 2003 to 2006, 34% of Hispanic construction worker deaths came from construction job-related injuries, the highest of any industry. In 2006, deaths among Hispanic workers were five per 100,000, compared with an average of four per 100,000 for white and black workers, the CDC reports.
Across the industry, falls are cited as the most common cause of accidental deaths, followed by contact with objects/equipment, exposure to harmful substances/environments, transportation accidents and fires/explosions, according to NAHB.
NAHB and Lowe’s have worked together to help reduce injuries and deaths among Hispanic workers, creating a number of educational tools to help contractors ensure a high degree of safety practices among Hispanic crew members.
The most significant effort is the Sed de Saber Construction Edition program (to see the Spanish-language page, click here), which teaches Latino workers English-language conversation skills and critical job-safety tips. The system contains 500 words and 340 phrases to allow a functional level of English-language conversation and comprehension in about four month’s time, with safety as the primary focus. Lowe’s is the home-improvement sponsor of the program.
“We all know that there are an increasing number of Spanish-speaking workers in the construction industry,” says Fred Humphreys, president/CEO of the Home Builders Institute, the workforce development arm of NAHB. “The gap in communications skills is resulting in a higher injury and death rate. Now, regardless of how one feels about immigration policy, the bottom line is that these workers are getting killed or hurt and we need to do something about it.”
In many ways, educational measures are more realistic than some of the other alternatives being suggested — such as hiring bilingual on-site foremen and supervisors, Humphreys says. “In a perfect world, it would be great to have bilingual building supervisors,” he says. “In the real world, it simply isn’t feasible. What we’re doing is bringing the workers to a level where they can communicate on the basic life skills needed to do their jobs safely.”
Pagés says that if builders or remodelers can’t hire a bilingual foreman, they must make sure that at least one of the immigrant workers speaks both English and Spanish. “In every team of workers, you’ll have one emerge as the leader of the pack,” he says. “That’s the one who needs to convey your safety policies effectively to his Spanish-speaking friends on the crew.”
And Pagés is constantly gathering instructional materials in Spanish that address safety issues, including those from NAHB.
“We set aside lunch breaks to sit down and watch safety DVDs that are presented in Spanish, and then we talk about them,” Pagés says. “Constant communications is essential here. It’s important that the discussion and the instructional materials and DVDs are understood by everyone in the field.”
For more information on Sed de Saber — Construction Edition, e-mail Steve Kramer at HBI, or call him at 800-368-5242 x8925.
This article is reprinted by permission from Lowe’s Commercial Services and first appeared on LowesForPros.com.