Here's what I think: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Back in the ‘50's and ‘60's, workplace safety was not considered a reasonable cost issue or even a relevant talking point for most employers. By 1970, Congress instituted the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which promulgate the General Industry (1910) and Construction (1926) Safety and Health Standards.
Today, revised into three documents totaling almost 2,000 pages of detailed, trade-specific safe work practices to be implemented by the employer in order to reduce the injury, illness and fatality rates of United States employees to the level of zero.
The 5(a)(1) General Duty Clause of the OSH Act clearly states that every employer shall provide a workplace and type of work free from all and any recognized health and safety hazards for all employees at all times. Despite the subjective success imposed by the OSHA standards, we have a startling new and rising, national epidemic of employee injuries, illnesses and deaths. The Hispanic and Latino worker is now the primary victim of workplace neglect and disrespect. They are currently the most disposable workforce, with many being treated every day as "consumables" regarding to their job site safety and health.
Hispanic injury statisticsAccording to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2004 survey, there are currently 37.4 million Hispanic residents in the United States (12 percent of the total, with a 90 percent confidence rate). The Census Bureau (www.census.gov) projects that by the year 2050 the Hispanic/Latino population will exceed 102.5 million residents (24 percent of the total). Currently, 66.9 percent originate from Mexico, 14.3 percent from Central and South America, 8.6 percent from Puerto Rico, 3.7 percent from Cuba and 6.5 percent from other Hispanic countries.
According to the 2004 census, more than twice the number of Hispanic workers than NHW's earned under $35,000 per annum. A remarkable 21.4 percent of Hispanic workers live below the national poverty level (7.8 percent NHW), including 28 percent of Hispanic children (9.5 percent NHW's).
It is, therefore, evident that an ever-increasing number of Hispanics will be performing more of the labor in this country while benefiting the least from their efforts. It is no wonder that their personal safety and health are seldom considered matters of importance in such a work force. Approximately 60 percent of all construction accidents are the result of procedures we either do or do not perform, exposing workers to one or more hazards at work. The root cause of most of these particular occupational accidents can be traced back to a lack of training or inadequate employer/employee communication.
There are about 111 million workers in the United States. The construction trades comprise 7 percent of these workers but account for more than 20 percent of the total fatalities annually. The Bureau of Labor Statistics collects data on immigrant labor under such terms as Hispanic, Latino, Asian, Vietnamese, Cambodian and foreign-born workers. This Hispanic/Latino data includes both native-born and foreign-born workers.
Most, but not all, foreign-born individuals maintain an immigrant status, including children born outside the U.S. to U.S. citizen parents, such as children of military personnel. At 70 percent of all of the non-English-speaking workers in the U.S., the Hispanic/Latino-speaking employees comprise the largest single group. Data on Hispanic and Latino workers includes both native-born and foreign-born workers. While the BLS has determined that the construction industry represents about 7 percent of all the employment in the U.S. Some say that the actual number, after cash employment is figured in, is closer to 10 percent. This amounts to more than 11 million construction workers on the job every day.
From 1992 to 2000 US injury/illness rates for all occupations dropped 31 percent with fatality rates decreasing just over 2 percent. For the same period, with 10.7 percent of the workforce non-English speaking, Hispanic/Latino fatality rates increased 11.6 percent to 815. In the construction industry, this comprised 15 percent of all fatalities. In 2001 the BLS figured the occupational injury/illness rate in this country was 5.7 per 100 workers. This amounts to more than 30,000 injuries to construction workers. This represents a drop of 48 percent since 1973 due to the efforts of OSHA in enforcing their standards or the employer. The problem is clarified when we realize that by 2002 the fatality rate for Hispanic and Latino speaking construction workers has increased to 20 percent of the workforce. Unfortunately, this increase of more than 9 percent per annum shows no immediate sign of reaching a plateau or dropping.
OSHA makes a moveAs a result of these staggering construction statistics, OSHA has instituted a massive mobilization of its agency to address the problem of these workers and their employers. Historically, it is an effort somewhat reminiscent of OSHA's 1970 inception. As in 1970, there is no current precedent for procedures or evaluations. In many ways it represents a 100 percent learning curve for an agency not previously known for is bureaucratic flexibility or conscientious self-evaluation. Assaults and violence against Hispanic/Latino workers are also on the rise.
There were 129 fatal on-the-job homicides in the U.S. in the year 2000 against Hispanic workers typically employed in such occupations as home health care, late-night retail and cab drivers. OSHA is researching ways to identify and reduce the risks of workplace violence, especially for Hispanic/Latino workers. As a result of all of these factors, in 2000 OSHA established an Emphasis Program for the Hispanic Workforce. The mission targets for this program included:
• Establishing the first ever Hispanic Workers Taskforce (HWT)
• Dedicating a 24/7 hotline telephone number (800) 321-OSHA with Spanish-speaking operators available 8:00 am to 4:30 pm EST.
• Creating a clearinghouse for Spanish training programs, videos, literature
• Creating a Spanish-language OSHA Web site (www.osha.gov) link available for employers and employees
• Offering a list of fluent, Spanish-speaking OSHA employees and contact numbers
• Strengthening OSHA area office contacts with local police and emergency responders to get prompt referrals whenever a Spanish-speaking worker is injured in a work-related accident
• Myth-busting and clarifying the governmental jurisdictions of OSHA and INS.
OSHA has also proposed some important changes to its Accident Investigation Summary Form (OSHA 170) filled out by compliance officers investigating a reported accident. Currently OSHA does not collect injury/illness data concerning the affected worker's ethnicity or citizenship status. The proposed changes recommend including several questions about the worker's ethnicity and language capabilities in order for OSHA "to determine if there is a nexus between language, cultural barriers and employee's injuries." (from John Henshaw's 2/27/02 report to U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Employment Safety and Training.)
All of these governmental efforts do not come without a price tag. In his 2004 budget request to the House Appropriations Committee, John Henshaw requested and Congress approved $450 million with $2.3 million targeting Outreach Training and Assistance to non-English-speaking workers. An additional $1.5 million was dedicated to assist small businesses with a predominantly large percentage earmarked for employers with Hispanic employees. These numbers are expected to rise in the fiscal year 2005 budget request.
On July 22, 2004, OSHA held its first annual Hispanic Labor Summit in Orlando, Fla. Contributing members included US Dept. of Labor, OSHA, National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, U.S. Hispanic Chambers of Commerce, Hispanic Alliance for Progress and various other civic and community ethnic groups and organizations. Many other satellite state-level alliances have spun off of this summit, such as the following:
• The Hispanic Construction Forum (Raleigh, N.C., 11/5/04), which was presented entirely in Spanish involving many Hispanic news publications and community organizers as well as the Mexican consulate.
• Houston Texas Home Builder's Association in conjunction with the Houston-area OSHA office have sponsored trade-specific, Spanish-language safety training for Hispanic workers in the roofing, masonry, labor, trenching and farming trades. Seven of Houston's largest residential contractors have joined in partnership since January 2005.
• Many southern states have a predominantly Hispanic labor workforce and as a result OSHA has developed Local Emphasis Programs in such states with high Hispanic employment (Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi)
In 1999, OSHA established through its Hispanic Task Force, the Construction Accident Reduction Emphasis in Florida. To help control the most hazardous conditions exposed to construction workers in the state: Trench collapse (reduced 15 percent), Electrocution from overhead power lines (reduced 60 percent); and roofing falls. (reduced 30 percent)
• OSHA's Regional Hispanic Worker's Outreach Program which included Region II (New York and New Jersey). This program had several mandates: Organized Spanish-speaking community organizations and churches representing many immigrant groups. Work with the New Jersey Puerto Rican Congress to disseminate OSHA's function to protect all workers' rights, regardless of immigrant status. Ally with the Archdiocese of N.J., the DoL's Wage and Hour Division of Union Needle Trades, Industrial & Textile Employees to address not only pay benefits but also health and safety conditions for workers in the apparel industries. Develop outreach curriculums for New York and New Jersey middle and high schools to prepare students for the safety and health regulations of the workplace
• OSHA and NAFTA have combined forces to consider drafting a 10-hour Construction Safety Training Program with Mexico, Canada and the United States to offer the Hispanic workers who cross the border a comparable and current safety and health training background, regardless of his immigrant status.
Many of these organizations have come to realize that as a group, the Hispanic/Latino Construction worker appears to have serious educational and cultural difficulties to overcome as well as language barriers. Research and analysis of non-English speaking construction workers indicates that many originate for the poorest districts of Central America and Mexico. They often leave their homes and families in poverty in order to find work more plentiful across the U.S. border. As a result, their education levels are often minimal or non-existent.
Band togetherAccording to the 2004 U.S. Census Survey, approximately 27 percent of Hispanics 25 years of age or older have graduated high school, compared to 88.7 percent of non-Hispanic Whites. About 27 percent of Hispanics have less than a ninth-grade education compared to only 4 percent of NHWs. Attending school was never an option in the economically depressed regions of their country of origin, such as Latin America, Central/South America, Mexico, Cuba, Spain and many other Spanish-speaking areas of the world.
Contributing to this Pandora's box of problems, they often arrive with in this country are the different Spanish dialects and varying Latin cultures and habits of their point of origin. Retaining this workforce with their severely limited educational backgrounds and limiting adequate safety and health training to an occasional, technical "toolbox" talk in a foreign language can only result in injury, illness and death for many of these workers. With more Hispanic workers from poorer communities expected to arrive in our towns and cities every year, this problem is not expected to resolve itself. We in the construction industry must become proactive advocates for extending the Hispanic worker's occupational safety and health education, no matter the cost.
In an October 2004 address to OSHA's Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health, Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA, John Henshaw stated that there are 47 consulates in the U.S. affiliated with the Foreign Ministry in Mexico. These consulates are endeavoring to remain in contact with as many Mexican-born workers in the U.S. in order to gain their trust and clearly inform them of the mission of OSHA. Many of these workers confuse the role of OSHA and the INS in the confusion of our massive government agencies. OSHA understands their fear and distrust and is working closely with their consulates in order to provide them Spanish-based training and assist them in calling OSHA with their workplace safety and health complaints, regardless of their immigrant status.
OSHA is also establishing a Catholic Worker's Alliance with the Catholic Diocese in the United States and Mexico, as research indicates that Hispanic workers are more aligned with their churches when relocated far from their home. OSHA is trying to dispel the myths and misconceptions of their ties to immigration authorities. The church is providing a conduit to inform the immigrant worker of OSHA's commitment to worker's rights, regardless of their country of origin and to encourage them to contact an area office with any safety questions or problems. Most area offices now employ one or more bilingual compliance officers to assist in answering questions.
Hispanic outreachAs OSHA has made immigrant workplace safety a priority in 2005 in order to offset the almost 35 percent rise in workplace fatalities since 1995 among Hispanic construction workers. Access to many of these resource programs can be easily made through links found on the OSHA Web site (www.osha.gov). Most importantly, the employer of a Hispanic/Latino worker can easily access the Hispanic Employers and Workers Compliance Assistance Web page, which includes OSHA en Espanola, Spanish Electronic Compliance Assistance tools (eTools), and Spanish-language publications. There are also handy English-to-Spanish and Spanish-to-English dictionaries that have more than 400 general OSHA construction safety and health terms, complete with phonetic pronunciation guides for the language-challenged.
Perhaps the most useful item for the employer of Hispanic/Latino workers on the Web site is the Compliance Assistance Quickstart module. It is a simple, online tool designed to easily identify OSHA's seven steps to compliance for non-English-speaking employees.
In some cases, workers may often go months (or years) without sufficient and comprehensive hands-on training classes presented by competent person trainers, but inevitably the trucks will all be inspected before their stickers go out of date at month's end. Not all employers are negligent in their comprehensive and refresher employee training, but as you read this article, there are hundreds of construction employers who are assuming that their Hispanic workforce is being properly and adequately supervised and trained by their foremen on the job.
Assumptions such as these are often the only way the employer can keep a 10-hour day from rolling over into a 12- to 14-hour nightmare. It is good advice to take stock of your non-English-speaking workforce immediately. Get foremen and supervisors trained and OSHA-compliant regarding the special needs of their Hispanic and Latino workers. If you do not currently hire Hispanic employees you should consider a future organization where their employment could be inevitable. Everything important takes time to implement, so don't be in a rush to learn construction Spanish.
While training Hispanic workers in the OSHA standards should never be considered a race, the employer should understand the time-sensitive constraints on such a Hispanic Outreach Training Program. Every day a non-English-speaking worker is assumed to know the hazards of falls, trenches, heavy machinery, confined spaces and hazardous chemicals without employer-verification, the closer the worker is to an injury. This brings his employer in closer proximity to a WC insurance claim, hospital and medical bills as well as a potential civil or criminal suit for malfeasance at worst or neglect at the least.
Language is the first tool in the safety and health toolbox. Without the ability to communicate and verify communication, no concept may be assumed and safe work procedures cannot be considered dependable. Hispanic and bilingual employees should be assured that their health and safety are at least as important as their manual contributions every shift. Employers who conduct themselves with a responsible ethic concerning their non-English-speaking workforce and their ability to work safely will still be successful in their competitive bidding well into the next decade.