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Construction trades learning safety as a second language

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Hispanic and Latino workers' high rate of on-the-job injuries and deaths in construction has sparked a new resource for an industry with a workforce that is more than one-quarter Hispanic.

“Over the last year, there has been a lot of concern over the Latino workforce because there have been a lot of injuries,” said Jorge Otalora, Vienna, Virginia-based division safety director at Hoar Construction L.L.C., a commercial builder of retail, health care, governmental, industrial and entertainment facilities nationwide. “These numbers have been increasing over the years.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the construction industry topped all other industries in fatal on-the-job injuries in 2014, the latest data available. Construction had a rate of 9.8 deaths per 100,000 workers — nearly triple the rate for all full-time workers. Of the roughly 900 Hispanics or Latinos fatally injured on the job in 2014, about two-thirds were born outside the United States (see box).

There also were nearly 201,000 construction-related injuries in 2014, according to BLS.

For executives such as Mr. Otalora, who oversees construction sites with up to 80% Hispanic workers, this trend has prompted the company to present safety procedures in Spanish as well as English.

In addition, the Park Ridge, Illinois-based American Society of Safety Engineers and the Silver Spring, Maryland-based Center for Construction Research & Training in March jointly released a set of Spanish-language safety instructions and training materials under their existing Safety Toolbox Talks offering.

The effort piggybacks on what the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has offered employers since convening its first National Action Summit for Latino Workers Health and Safety in 2010, according to a Washington-based OSHA spokeswoman.

“Latino workers suffer and die on the job at a greater rate while doing the hardest, most unhealthy, most dangerous jobs,” she said. “Many of these workers don't know they have a right to work in a safe and healthful workplace. Most are untrained in addressing workplace hazards, and many face discrimination because of language barriers.”

OSHA also has developed alliances with nonprofit and community organizations and devised a Spanish-language web page with materials and publications for what the OSHA spokeswoman and others refer to as the most vulnerable set of workers in the United States. It also provides free on-site consultation for firms seeking health and safety advice.

Providing safety materials in Spanish is something that many midsize and larger firms such as Hoar Construction — which employs up to 500 full-time workers at a time but also relies on hundreds of contractors — use routinely, Mr. Otalora said.

“We have had a bilingual safety department with managers who have translated safety materials” for a number of years, he said. “What we've seen is that the workers are more aware of the hazards and more easily identify issues and correct them before it actually becomes an injury.”

To ASSE President Michael Belcher, this is precisely what the industry needs.

“There's a real shortage of safety professionals in the marketplace,” Mr. Belcher said. “The Safety Toolbox helps bridge that gap when small businesses, in particular, don't have any other resources available.”

The free Safety Toolbox Talks, introduced two years ago, have seen hundreds of thousands of downloads. As of late May, the Spanish version introduced this year had already been downloaded 2,000 times, said Eileen Betit, director of research to practice at the Center for Construction Research & Training.

Included in the online resource are 52 publications that are printable and easy to navigate, with illustrations and bullet points. They cover everything from working with a forklift and other heavy equipment to dealing with the risks of asphalt fumes and carbon monoxide poisoning, falling objects on a construction site and protecting their eyes.

This resource, which Mr. Otalora said has already been employed by several construction worksites, covers basic safety rules and procedures for workers exposed to falls, electrical and weather hazards, he said.

“We have people working all summer long in high temperatures,” he said. “This covers all the risks for heat stroke, for example. If you have that information in your own language, you can understand what is happening before it becomes a catastrophic problem.

“We encourage people to employ the advice from professionals,” Mr. Belcher said. “Our goal is to create a safe workplace. It's not a sustainable practice to be putting people at risk.”