Health, Safety & Environmental Issues in An Increasingly Hispanic Work Force

For any American living in a major metropolitan area today, it is quite apparent that the country is changing, and becoming more multilingual with a special emphasis on a growing Spanish speaking population. The Hispanic share of the US population is expected to increase almost everywhere, especially in the South, by 2030.  This interactive map shows the expected dramatic rate of growth in the Hispanic population across the country over the 2010 to 2030 period. We should expect that a significant number of Hispanics will enter the work force over the coming decades and employers will need to become much more bilingual competent to properly engage and connect with this new labor force.

U.S. Hispanic population hits new high

Another study on historic trends by the Pew Research Center showed that Hispanics today, are concentrated in the south and major metropolitan areas. Interestingly, this research also shows that the fastest growing Hispanic populations over 2007-2014 period were in North Dakota, mostly driven by increased fracking and oil extraction related activity in the state, which urgently required more construction workers and thus drove a large Hispanic worker migration.

Fast-growing Latino counties between 2007 and 2014 were largely located in the South and in metropolitan areas

Hispanic workers’ share of the labor force has increased significantly since 1990, particularly in the construction industry. From 1990 to 2010, the proportion of workers who identified themselves as Hispanic doubled for all industries from 7% to 14% (to 19.9 million workers), but almost tripled for construction from 9% or 705,000 workers in 1990 to 24% or 2.2 million in 2010.

Hispanic workers as a percentage of construction and all industries, selected years, 1990-2010 (All employment)

*Hispanic refers to any individual whose origin is Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, South or Central American, Chicano, or other Latin American.

Percentage of Hispanic workers, by industry, 2010 (Production workers)

Latino workers often look to the construction field as their avenue to economic security. In more recent data from 2014, they accounted for about 16% of the total workforce, and about 27% of the construction industry, according to the BLS. Jorge Perez, director of the Hispanic American Construction Industry Association (HACIA) in Illinois, said: “We understand that Hispanics are using construction as their path, our path, to the middle class.” We should also consider that many of these safety issues are also valid for workers in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, and transportation where complicated machinery and safety procedures are required.

Why is it that the fatality rate is inching up for Latinos and inching down for non-Latinos?

However, there is another troubling trend. Between 2010 and 2013, the rate of Latino construction worker fatalities on job sites continued to increase disproportionately to their population of the total industry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This surge, coinciding with a declining fatality rate for non-Latinos, has led industry professionals to seek out the root of the problem and search for solutions.

“In 2011, however, Latinos began to die in accidents on job sites at a higher rate than that of non-Latino workers. During that year, the construction industry was over 24% Latino, and the group represented over 26% of deaths. The pattern continued into the subsequent years. In 2012, Latinos accounted for over 24% of the construction industry, and over 27% of job site deaths. Then, in 2013, their population in the industry grew to 25.5%, and they represented 29% of deaths.

At the same time, the share of non-Latino construction worker deaths compared with all fatalities continued to decrease over the four years, inversely from that of the Latino population.”

If the Hispanic population continues to grow as forecasted, Latino workers will continue to pour into the construction field, and their fatality rates will increase if deliberate and specific measures are not taken to address the root causes. Jorge Perez, of the Hispanic American Construction Industry Association (HACIA) believes the underlying culprit is a lack of safety awareness by workers and contractors. A situation that can be improved by better training and reference material on safety practices that is in Spanish.

He goes on to say that Latino employees come from a work culture that does not emphasize safety, which is in contrast to the constant rules and regulations Americans encounter daily. “For these individuals, particularly those from Central and South America and Mexico, there is no culture or movement to emphasize the need for safety. So when they come here, it’s all new to them,” Perez said.

Many others have attributed the higher fatality rate to a lack of training for Latino construction workers in their native Spanish. If safety instructions and procedures are not properly provided, and understood, why are we surprised that the injury rates are higher.

Anyway, it seems quite clear from several other sources (“Immigrants in the United States” report by Dr. Steven Camarota, Director of Research for the CIS, “The Impact of Language and Culture Diversity in Occupational Safety” by Mayra De Jesus-Rivas, Helen Acree Conlon, and Candace Burns,“Tracking Global Trends” by Ernst & Young) that:

  • Of the 7 million construction workers in the U.S. ~25% are Hispanic
  • 6 out of 10 Hispanic workers speak little to no English
  • Constructions workers are injured more than English speaking workers – 70% higher for Hispanic workers and 69% higher for other foreign-born workers.
  • 25% of job site accidents can be attributed to language barriers

Although a federal law is already in place requiring that training materials be presented in a language workers understand, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not have the tools or manpower to monitor every construction manager to ensure they are following the rules, said Jessica Martinez, deputy director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH), a worker advocacy organization. There is a void not only of training in Spanish, she added, but also of OSHA site inspectors who speak Spanish. “Being able to have an inspector who can talk to the workers in a safe space in the language that they understand will make it easier to enforce the law,” Martinez said.

It is clear that making more professionally created Spanish language training content available can go a long way in reducing these injuries. There is a notable quote we hear from one of the HSE (Health, Safety & Environment) managers we work with: “Safety is expensive. Until there is an accident.” Consider what happens after a serious accident: the company has to deal with an employee who has acquired a serious injury on the job, police, liability and health insurance considerations, potentially increased legal attention from regulators, and productivity loss as other workers are hampered in ongoing work.

To exacerbate this further there are also the following factors at play:

  • According to multiple sources, Latino construction workers are also likely to hold more dangerous jobs within a crew as they are often the least senior and most ignorant of workers’ rights.
  • As construction companies struggle to fill open positions with qualified workers, novice employees come on board with no experience and a carry a higher possibility of injury.
  • Construction sites, in general, are more dangerous for Latino workers who don’t speak English.
  • Some employers often take advantage of immigrant workers who may not know the rules and are not willing to speak up.

Almost all sources and experts point to bilingual training as a key factor in addressing the problem. OSHA’s training information is available online in both English and Spanish, as is HACIA’s contractor training, NAHB’s safety materials, and American Red Cross online OSHA training courses.

Training materials and critical safety instructions with heavy machinery are particularly important documents, because they serve as the foundation for performing all daily tasks within the workplace. When staff is well trained, the potential for problems is reduced and the overall work process is more efficient. In general, most workplace accidents are preventable with proper employee training. It is unfortunate when injuries occur, in particular, when employees did not have a clear understanding of the training instructions due to a language barrier or poor-quality translations of critical safety related material.

When an accident does arise, the Police, HSE, HR department and Managers may all need to descend on the area in question especially if the injury is serious or involves a death. Opportunities through which migrant workers can become more actively engaged in disseminating safety related working practices, by being integral to policy decision making and education practices will ensure better outcomes for both the company and the workers. This by definition means it has to be done in Spanish. Methods of conveying important messages, whether through peers, or through translated materials to inform them of their rights and responsibilities should be developed. In many cases they are mandatory. Engaging competent and knowledgeable translation services are key to both preventing these incidents, and to ensure drama free investigation and resolution when they do occur.

Another level of legal responsibility is in governmental compliance. While employees are at risk when they do not clearly understand the workplace instructions, so are businesses when employees are not capable of performing the required tasks due to a language barrier. In many workplaces where workers can be injured by machinery or work environment materials it is mandated by governmental inspectors that all workers understand safety protocols.

Professional translation services that understand the use scenarios of the material they translate are a key to reducing this troubling trend. If the workers do not understand the instructions because a cut-rate translation option was used, the whole purpose of training and bilingual communication is defeated and it is possible to even increase the danger by providing incorrect and confusing translations. If the training materials are to be useful to workers they must be easily understandable, and experts like MWS have long-term experience in performing these kinds of services effectively. We should understand that convoluted and poor translations provide false security and are not likely to reduce the core concern, which is to reach a status quo with fewer injuries, lower insurance rates, happier and more productive workers, and ongoing effective work performance.

The U.S. Hispanic population is drawn from an increasingly diverse mix of countries. Hispanics of Mexican origin account for 63.3% (36 million) of the nation’s Hispanic population in 2015 but its share is dropping. The population of Hispanics of Puerto Rican origin, the second-largest origin group, stands at 5.4 million in 2015. Five other Hispanic origin groups have populations of more than 1 million – Salvadorans, Cubans, Dominicans, Guatemalans and Colombians – and each has also seen its population increase over the past decade.

The original country of origin of the Hispanic population also means that there can be Spanish variants, and employers and agencies that work on training materials need to be aware of critical differences especially around safety related training content. The following few examples demonstrate significant differences between regional variances of Spanish. At MasterWord we understand these crucial nuances that help ensure accurate communication required for safety purposes.

Established in 1993 and headquartered in the Energy Capital of the World, Houston, TX, our core specialty is technical translation services. We support our clients’ domestic and international operations, as well as international projects requiring highly technical translations and interpreting, understanding of the subject matter, technical standards and regulatory requirements, including 100% local content requirements by providing staffing of bilingual personnel both in the U.S. and abroad.

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  • Technical documents to support all engineering, construction, and operations activities: datasheets, drawings, equipment lists, manuals (user, installation, maintenance, training, service, etc.), passports, process descriptions and reports, standards, specifications, quality procedures, well reports, etc.
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For more information on how we can help you translate your confidential information, please call us at +1 281-589-0810 or +1 866-716-4999 (option 3 for translation) or email us at masterword@masterword.com. We are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.