Language has become the biggest obstacle to safety on some jobsites, as Spanish-speaking workers are finding more work in the electrical industry

The principles of workplace safety are easy enough to understand, but when employer and employee don't speak the same language, the message can become confused or lost altogether. And such a breakdown of communication may be at fault for the rising injury and fatality rates among Hispanic workers in the construction industry. As the Hispanic population grows in the United States and more Spanish-speaking workers find their way onto construction jobsites, job supervisors and foremen who lack any fluency in Spanish are finding it increasingly difficult to adequately demonstrate safe work practices to a workforce with limited English skills.

Early immigrants' motives for coming to the United States may have once been the search for religious freedom or to escape overbearing governments, but most of today's Hispanic émigrés come to the United States in search of work. “It's the land of opportunity,” says Senaido Adam Trevino, chairman of the board for the Hispanic Contractors' Association of Dallas/Ft. Worth. “They can't make wages in Mexico like they can make here. They're hungry.”

So hungry, in fact, that Hispanics accounted for more than half of the country's population growth from 2000 to 2001. Roughly 1.7 million Hispanics either immigrated to or were born in the United States in that year alone, helping that demographic's workforce swell to more than 14.5 million. Figures for the number of those workers who speak English aren't available, but with recent immigrants undoubtedly making up a sizeable portion of the growth, the potential for a workplace language barrier is growing.

“Anglo America has abandoned the construction industry,” Trevino says. “African Americans have abandoned it, too. If you don't hire Hispanic workers, who are you going to hire? Some of them may not speak a lick of English, but they're hardworking people.”

Hardworking or not, Spanish-speaking workers are dying on the jobsite more frequently than any other segment of the population. While workplace fatalities for Anglo and African Americans have steadily declined in recent years, the opposite is true for Hispanics. Deaths among that demographic rose from 815 in 2000 to 891 in 2001, the most recent years for which the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has figures.

Alarmed by that trend, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently began to investigate workplace fatalities more closely to see how often language was a factor. The resultant data shows that, for example, 61% of workplace deaths in Dallas in 2001 involved workers with a limited understanding of English. “We have a lot of people dying, and a lot of it's because of simple ignorance,” Trevino says.

Safety starts with communication.

Ty Runyan won't hire Hispanic workers who don't have at least a working-level understanding of English. For reasons of safety, the president of Austin, Texas-based Titus Electrical Contracting, Inc. places such a high value on the ability to communicate with his workers that he considers anyone who isn't fluent in English a liability. “A fundamental of safety is clear, concise communication,” he says. “And the primary method of communication is language. If you can't communicate effectively, then you can't maintain legitimate safety practices on the job.”

Runyan, who is Hispanic, also points out that the technical nature of his firm's work demands a level of expertise that few recent émigrés have, and those who do, can still be hampered by a lack of fluency in English. On the other hand, he says some of his best workers are second- and third-generation Hispanics.

Runyan says issues of communication show up more often in industries like landscaping and general labor that hire large numbers of Mexican nationals. “Those companies that have problems tend to be less dogmatic and less fastidious about their construction safety training,” he says. “And they make up a market segment that doesn't make the investment in personnel the way it is in the electrical trade.”

With only 100 employees, Runyan can afford to make that distinction. Houston-Stafford Electric, a subsidiary of Integrated Electrical Services, employs between 1,500 and 1,800, a fact that makes it almost impossible for the company to avoid hiring Spanish-speaking workers. In fact, more than 80% of the firm's Hispanic workers speak limited English. Few have had no exposure to English or electrical work, but anything less than fluency can present the very problem that Runyan prefers to avoid. “The biggest obstacle we have is the language barrier,” says Randall Allen, Houston-Stafford's safety director. “Not being able to communicate with the guys affects the way that they can get the work done, and it certainly affects safety issues in the field.”

Language may be the biggest obstacle, but it's not the only one that can make it difficult to create a safe work environment for Spanish-speaking workers. The work culture in several Latin American countries, especially Mexico, can instill in Hispanic workers the idea that they're expendable. There, employees are expected to find a way to get the job done quickly, without regard for their own safety. Many work under the constant fear that if they aren't willing to cut corners, someone else will. “The way they've been taught is to get it done with limited resources,” Trevino says. “Safety has never been a priority in Mexico.”

The built-in comfort zone that exists in most southern cities with large Hispanic populations can also slow the transition process. The optimal situation would be for an immigrant worker to move to the country and be forced by their surroundings to begin learning the language. The 2000 census shows Hispanics are more geographically concentrated than other groups, tending to gravitate to cities with a known Latino population. Local businesses adapt to the language needs of the city's residents, and English becomes less of a necessity. “You can survive in almost any Texas city without knowing the language,” Trevino says. “You can go to the grocery store, buy gas, and pay your bills, all without knowing a lick of English.”

A two-way street.

In the eyes of the law, an employer must take responsibility for keeping its workers safe. In the case of Spanish-speaking employees, that means communicating with them in a way that ensures they understand what's hazardous on any given jobsite. John Miles, a regional administrator for OSHA, says a properly trained worker is a safe worker, and sometimes that training may require a second language. “An employer has to do something to try to communicate with his workers,” he says. “And if he doesn't speak Spanish, he has a responsibility to get someone who can interpret for him.”

Nearly one-third of Houston-Stafford's Caucasian supervisors speak fluent Spanish. The company doesn't require its employees to learn Spanish, but supervisors are expected to be able to speak the language because at times that's the only way to communicate. Many employees will make the effort to become bilingual to make themselves more valuable to the company and improve their chances for advancement.

It could take years for an English-speaking supervisor to become fluent in Spanish, but workplace safety is an ongoing issue and one that can't be put on hold while employees learn to speak another language. To bridge the gap, some employers opt to pursue specialized courses in Spanish that concentrate on words and phrases pertinent to specific occupations and industries. Miles says such programs are a good start. “The first step is learning those words that will help you inform your workers of hazards on the jobsite,” he says. “That's one way to get some understanding between the parties.”

Dr. Sam Slick, president and CEO of Command Spanish, says the traditional method of teaching Spanish is grossly ineffective and fails to give students a practical understanding of the language that they need to do their jobs. “High school and college Spanish classes want to teach you a bunch of fruits and vegetables,” he says. “Construction supervisors don't need to know fruits and vegetables. They need to be able to say ‘Paint this,’ ‘Lift this,’ and ‘Change that.’”

His company's program, which is available at more than 300 community colleges across the country, focuses on a targeted list of about 50 phrases that can be customized from one industry to another (see Sidebar above). Learning phrases like “Don't touch this,” or “This is high-voltage” not only helps employers protect their workers, it also helps immunize them against legal problems if a worker were to be injured. “You're obligated to explain to your workers the nature of the job and the potential for injury,” Slick says. “If you knowingly and willingly hire Spanish-speaking employees and one of them gets electrocuted because you didn't tell them what not to touch in a language they could understand, then you're in trouble.”

Issues of worker safety aside, Slick says even learning daily pleasantries like “Good morning,” and “How are you doing today?” can help foster a relationship that will improve worker morale and ensure quality work output. “The minute they hear you say ‘Buenos dias,’ the more likely they are to stay with you than go to someone else down the road who's willing to pay them a nickel more per hour.”

Looking out for the employee.

While programs like Command Spanish service the employer, OSHA and HCA prefer to service the employee's needs. In response to the rising fatality rate among Hispanic workers, OSHA established the Hispanic Outreach Taskforce in late 2001 to address the issue and provide greater access to safety information for Spanish-speaking workers. One of the first projects the group undertook was the investigation that uncovered the frequency with which language was a factor in a workplace fatality. Miles chairs the committee. “We're trying to get a handle on it,” he says. “We have seen some reductions in the number of Hispanic fatalities in some places, and it's due to the fact that we're trying to make people aware that there is a real problem.”

OSHA has also begun to translate all of its safety literature into Spanish, including “All About OSHA” and “OSHA to Serve You.” It has even created a Spanish version of its Web site, but Miles acknowledges that very few of the workers for whom the information on the Web site is intended have access to computers or the Internet. Not only that, Hispanic immigrants may be able to speak their native language, but that doesn't mean they can read it. Literacy rates are notoriously low in Mexico, meaning that safety manuals written in Spanish aren't always effective. “You can't always just take an OSHA document and translate it from English to Spanish,” Miles says. “Some of these workers that come up from Mexico really don't understand Spanish very well either. Many are only reading at a second grade level.”

To make sure the message of safety is reaching the people who need it, OSHA has built relationships with the HCA and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and makes regular visits to churches with large Hispanic congregations. “They work six or seven days a week, so it can be difficult to find ways to get the message out there,” he says. “That's why we have to find several other ways to reach them.”

Taking such an aggressive approach isn't always met with the best results, though. Miles says oftentimes OSHA representatives are regarded with mistrust by Hispanic workers because of possible problems with citizenship status. But immigration issues are secondary to safety. “We don't ask [if they're legal],” he says. “We're interested in safety and health. We're concerned if a worker is killed, regardless of how he got there.”

Allen is just as concerned about keeping his Hispanic workers safe. Houston-Stafford offers all of its safety training programs in English and Spanish, conducts weekly safety meetings in both languages, and even makes Code courses available in Spanish for Hispanic workers studying to become journeymen electricians. “We have guys who have a lot of potential, who are great electricians, and who are respected by their crews, but they're being held back by the fact that they can't speak English,” he says. “We really encourage them to increase their ability as far as the language is concerned.”

Although some Hispanic workers may resist learning the language, those who do learn it are often regarded by their peers with a level of respect that a Caucasian supervisor might not receive. These bilingual workers can then help teach safe work practices to incoming workers who know little to no English. “Those guys are great assistants for us in training new guys and changing their perceptions of safety in the workplace,” Allen says. “When their peers are telling them that they're doing something wrong and how to do it right, that speeds up the process.”

Regardless of how it's accomplished, English-speaking supervisors and Spanish-speaking workers need to find some way to communicate, especially when electrical safety is concerned. “Contractors have to make sure that their workers understand the message that they're sending about their safety programs,” Trevino says. “You're talking about somebody's life out there.”

If all else fails, appeal to the things that matter most to them. “You have to send a hard message to people that safety is mandatory and that it affects not only them but their families as well,” he says. “Stick a picture of their family in their hardhat. Once you get the family involved in the message, they start to see the light.”




Sidebar: Rethinking Spanish Instruction

“As soon as you make Spanish or any foreign language an analytical issue instead of a pyscho-motor issue, you're lost,” Command Spanish President Sam Slick says. His company's program eliminates things like verb conjugation and grammar rules that he believes muddle Spanish instruction in high schools and colleges. Traditional teaching methods actually work against the way the brain typically operates. “You're doing more than just the unteachable — you're hurting the brain,” he says.

Command Spanish classes use repetition to help job supervisors memorize short phrases that can assist in instructing employees on a jobsite. Classes are offered through local registered providers and can run anywhere from eight to 20 hours. Because the material is customized to each company's needs, providers typically don't offer open enrollment classes. Once a company has requested a class, an instructor will visit the jobsite and shadow a supervisor for a day, taking notes and determining which commands are used most frequently. Those phrases are then translated into Spanish and incorporated into a lesson plan that also includes general commands like “Don't lift too much” and “Watch where you're going.”

Felicia Cook, an instructor at Mountain View College, a registered provider of Command Spanish in Dallas, says that good communication with employees goes beyond just telling them what to do. Total body response, which involves modeling what you want your workers to do, can increase the effectiveness of the message. “It's all about not only saying the words, but showing as well.”

Phrases that involve positive reinforcement can also be helpful. “We spend a lot of time on things like ‘Well done,’ ‘Good job,’ and ‘I really like your work,’” Cook says.

The idea is to help bridge the gap between the time when employees first come on-site and can't speak the language at all and when they're able to better communicate. “When we put the class out there, we want to make it immediate,” she says. “We want them to go back the following day and use the training.”