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Language barriers increase hazards on construction sites


SAN DIEGO—While there are many hazards on a construction site, employers cannot overlook the hazard associated with a bilingual work force, according to a health and safety expert.

Hispanic workers die at a greater rate each year in U.S. workplace construction accidents than African-Americans and Caucasians, and within the next five years or so, Hispanics could represent nearly half of the construction workforce, said Tim Carter, vp-health, safety, security and environmental for Trammell Crow Co., an Irvine, Calif.-based commercial real estate services company.

Lack of effective communication within a bilingual workforce raises a number of safety issues, but implementing an English-only workplace policy is not the answer. Instead, he said, the focus should be on effective communication and training.

The bilingual workforce is "an issue we need to deal with because it's a hazard. That's not unkind, it's the truth...and it needs to be dealt with effectively," Mr. Carter said.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, total workplace fatal injuries in 2005 fell 1.2%. But the number of fatal injuries among Hispanic workers rose 2% last year to 917, Mr. Carter noted. And in 2004, while the overall number of workplace fatal injuries was up 2%, fatal workplace injuries among Hispanic workers rose 11%.

In the construction industry, the Hispanic fatality rate is 5.2 per 100,000 workers compared to a 4.5 per 100,000 workers rate among African-Americans and Caucasians, he said.

Mr. Carter noted that 12% of serious injuries among Hispanic workers occur during the first day on the job.

"Something's dreadfully wrong and there is something that needs to be done," he said during a session at the 26th Construction Risk Conference, held Oct. 9-12 in San Diego and sponsored by the International Risk Management Institute Inc.

"We can't communicate with each other as effectively as we need to," he said.

Of the more than 28 million Spanish speaking people in the United States, 5.1 million do not speak English well and nearly 3 million do not speak English at all, Mr. Carter said, referring to 2000 U.S. Census statistics.

Not only are effective communication skills lacking in the construction industry, but in some cases, there is little or no safety training and great exposure to high-hazard work, he said.

Many Spanish-speaking immigrants are young and have minimal or no skills, but are "willing to do anything to keep the job... because they have to have a job." At the same time, safety questions sometimes go unasked and unanswered, Mr. Carter said. One of the cultural differences with the immigrant population is they don't necessarily feel comfortable in raising questions because it could be perceived as challenging authority, he noted.

Employers have the "responsibility to provide a workplace that is free from hazards," according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Mr. Carter said. OSHA does not give construction companies an escape clause for workers that do not understand English, he said.

If the inability to effectively communicate with employees could be hazardous, "then you better take care of it," Mr. Carter said.

Enacting workplace policies requiring employees to speak only English is not the solution, Mr. Carter said.

Federal appeals courts have upheld "English only" rules in the workplace, but there must be a "business necessity" for it, Mr. Carter said. If employers cannot prove the workplace policy is a business necessity, they may be in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he said.

Rather than instituting an English-only workplace policy, employers should consider grouping workers according to language skills, mixing bilingual workers with non-English speaking workers and requiring supervisors to become bilingual, he said.