A man in his late 40s was run over by a backhoe: A 19-year-old slipped off a roof, broke his back, and was paralyzed: A 31-year-old fell to his death in a smokestack: The headlines are disturbing even before you consider that all these workplace incidents involved Hispanic construction workers who spoke English as a second language.
Latinos account for roughly one in every four workers in the construction industry, and are at a higher risk of fatal injury than their non-Hispanic co-workers, according to a special report from the Department of Labor. Those who are born outside of the U.S. face the greatest risk.
While OSHA, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, requires that employers provide employees with safety training “in a language and vocabulary they can understand,” non-native speakers face real language and cultural barriers when it comes to comprehension. Studies have found that, for some foreign-born workers, workplace safety guidelines and requirements are a foreign concept that they don’t understand and, unfortunately, don’t know to demand.
In Texas, for example, a survey released in February found that half of the construction workers surveyed were undocumented. Of these, 81 percent were Hispanic, 73 percent were foreign-born, and 73 percent had not received basic safety training – compared to just 40 percent of the U.S.-born workers who were surveyed.
Even if they do receive training, Hispanic workers with limited English may not get much out of it. As a training module from the Oregon Occupational Safety & Health Administration describes it: “Job training for limited-English Hispanic workers typically involves a trainer, usually a native English speaker without bilingual skills, (who) grabs a native Spanish speaker with some English skills from the group of workers, and uses this person as an interpreter.” While the employees understand to nod their heads “yes” when asked if they understand, they often don’t, according to the module.
As a result, many organizations have launched awareness campaigns and outreach programs to improve the universal communication of safety. An important aspect of that is ensuring that safety warnings are understood on construction sites – specifically those that address the leading causes of worker deaths: falls, followed by electrocution, being struck by an object, and caught in, by or between machinery.
Bilingual signs are one solution to communicating important messages to workers, such as: watch out for forklifts, or hard hats are required. Signs that incorporate symbols have also been found to improve rapid recognition of an immediate danger, and many organizations advocate using both (bilingual signs with symbols) to warn workers about hazards. The Center for Construction Research and Training, for example, offers several illustrated flyers for various hazards – ranging from nail guns and solvents to lockout/tagout procedures – that are in Spanish.
Some studies, however, have shown that it sometimes takes more than words and pictures to gain true comprehension, and technology could provide some additional tools.
A 2010 study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine recommended that construction contractors use simulation techniques to provide safety training, while a private company has introduced a “Silent Safety” program that incorporates animation and is designed to “take language and reading comprehension out of the equation.”