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A construction laborer stands with fellow crew members at the start of the work day. The supervising contractor on the site lists off safety instructions for the hazardous tasks they could encounter. He asks if everyone understands. In line with the others, the worker nods. Only he didn’t catch a word of it. The instructions were not given in a language he understands, but he chooses the risk of uncertainty over the risk of speaking up. Then, he enters the site of the 10th deadliest job in America.
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 2010, the opposite of the increasing fatality rate trend was true, when Latinos made up over 24% of workers in the private construction industry, but accounted for about 23% of deaths, according to an analysis of data from the BLS. The 2013 data, which combines those who identify as Hispanic or Latino into one category, is the most recent workplace fatality data available from the bureau.
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.
Latino workers often look to the construction field as their avenue to economic security. In 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.”
Certainly, as Latino workers continue to pour into the construction field, their fatality rate will increase. However, if other factors weren’t at play, that rate wouldn’t surge higher than their percentage of the total industry population.
The 2013 BLS data is preliminary, as the bureau won’t release its final numbers until late spring. Typically, the fatality numbers go up after its revision.
Robert Matuga, assistant vice president of labor, safety, and health policy for the National Association of Home Builders, said of the higher rate: "It’s something that we’re aware of. There’s been a lot of discussion recently, within the last five to eight years, about the Hispanic or the Latino worker possibly facing greater risks in construction for an accident or injury."
Factors at play
• Perez said he believes the underlying culprit is a lack of safety awareness by workers and contractors.
The Latino employees come from a work culture that does not emphasize safety, which contrasts the constant rules and regulations Americans encounter daily, he said. "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.
• Others have attributed the higher fatality rate to a lack of training for Latino construction workers in their native Spanish.
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.
New York City resident Julio Usera, 36, of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent, is a 12-year veteran of the construction industry. Although he speaks English, he recognizes the language barrier as a significant problem for many of his co-workers. "The contractors work in English," Usera said. "They should offer training in English and Spanish, to give people the opportunity who don’t know English." He added that if Latino workers don’t receive proper training, the burden falls on them to find their own. "They have to learn. They don’t have a choice. They have to have work. They have to feed their families."
Usera said oftentimes on job sites, other workers who aren’t bilingual look to him and other English speakers to help them understand the contractor’s instructions. "The guys who know English and Spanish, they let them know what they have to do," he said.
• According to multiple sources, Latino construction workers are also likely to hold more dangerous jobs within a crew.
Rebecca Smith, deputy director of the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy and research group, focuses her research on immigrants in the work force. According to a new report from Pew Research Center, 14% of construction workers were undocumented immigrants in 2012. The report, however, does not specify the immigrants' countries of origin.
Smith believes employers often take advantage of immigrant workers who may not know the rules and are not willing to speak up. "For immigrant Latino workers, some employers use immigration status as a weapon to forestall complaints, and in some cases, get the complainers deported," she said.
She added, "There have been some studies that have said immigrant workers often get the highest-risk jobs and often the hardest job assignments within a workplace."
Martinez agreed and said that in general, Latinos are commonly given the riskier jobs because they are less likely to voice concerns and ask for safer or better paid positions.
"Sometimes production takes priority over ensuring that you keep your workforce safe and healthy, and that they get home to their families safely," she said.
• Another issue: Undocumented immigrants are much less likely to be members of unions or to join larger construction firms.
Peter Philips, a construction labor expert and professor at the University of Utah, said, "Undocumented immigrants tend to be disproportionately in residential work with little union coverage, in smaller construction companies, with less OSHA oversight."
Without union representation and as a member of a smaller firm that is less likely to be inspected, undocumented immigrants may not receive the same protections or training as other workers, he said.
"While citizen Hispanics have the same unionization rate as non-Hispanics, non-citizen Hispanics are disproportionately nonunionized in small firms and newer to the industry and younger," Philips added. "That's the heart of the story."
After a friend’s recommendation, Usera joined the United Hispanic Construction Workers (UHCW), a nonprofit coalition of construction workers based in New York City that helps minority laborers find work.
Usera received his OSHA training through the UHCW organization, which he said paid for the course. UHCW also helped him secure daily work and join a union, which he credited for his current steady pay. "If you’re not part of some organization or union, it's hard to get a job in construction," he said.
• In addition to all those possible factors, a broader industry trend could have an effect as well. As construction companies struggle to fill open positions with qualified workers, novice employees come on board with no experience and a higher possibility of injury.
Matuga said, "Whether you’re Latino or a native English speaker, we’ve seen some statistics where within your first month or year on the job, those workers are at risk because they don’t have the experience and don’t understand what the hazards are."
A May 2014 report from the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), a major national trade union organization, examined OSHA’s impact on workplace safety. According to the report, federal and state OSHA agencies included just under 2,000 inspectors responsible for 8 million work sites under their jurisdiction. Currently, combining federal and state OSHA inspectors, there is one official for every 67,847 workers.
Penalties for an OSHA violation have increased slightly under the Obama administration, but the AFL-CIO claims they are not steep enough to cause real concern among site managers and firms. In fiscal year 2013, the average penalty in workplace fatality cases investigated by state OSHA inspectors was $6,100 and $5,600 for federal inspectors, according to the report.
“It’s just a slap on the wrist for some of these employers,” Martinez said.
OSHA only charges criminal penalties in cases where “willful violations” resulted in worker death, the report said. Eighty-four criminal cases have been prosecuted since 1970, and defendants served 89 total months in prison.
Martinez emphasized that OSHA is doing what it can with its current funding, and called for more resources to be allocated to the agency.
However, other industry players believe the problem lies not in OSHA’s enforcement of regulations, but in employers’ execution of the rules already in place.
Matuga said: "It’s really incumbent upon the employers and employees to make sure they understand what the rules are and make sure they’re following them … Our perspective is that OSHA's out there doing enforcement."
OSHA did not provide a response to Construction Dive's request for comment by the time of publication.
Good business sense
Many government agencies and builders' and contractors' associations encourage members to train employees thoroughly and in their native language not just for safety reasons, but for their bottom line.
According to Matuga, almost all companies in every state are required to have workers' compensation insurance. Insurers often offer their own training for clients, including safety training in multiple languages. When construction firms take advantage of this training, their insurance companies may give them a premium discount.
"Those could be significant cost savings if companies are doing the right thing, having safety programs or getting their workers trained, because insurers recognize that. The risk of them having an accident is now decreased," Matuga said.
Perez said he believes most contractors are aware of and understand the risks and regulations. "They know they will get dinged if someone shows up from OSHA if there are violations. But they also know that if they do all of [the training], their insurance rates will be a little bit more amenable."
Builders, contractors, and advocacy organizations place the responsibility for countering the higher Latino fatality rate on different industry members.
HACIA focuses on training the contractors and construction firm owners to ensure they are aware of the risks and keep their job sites as safe as possible.
Perez said: "Especially if it comes from the owner of the firm, then there is a definite understanding from the worker. It's good for the industry. I think once we start raising awareness, we'll definitely start countering this."
Employees and employers have a joint responsibility to make a change, according to Matuga. "It's important that the workers understand what the risks are, but it's also required that the employer train the workers on the hazards that they actually are going to encounter on the job site. That is certainly an issue, getting the training to the workers, and then making sure that they actually follow the rules," he said.
Smith ranks awareness of workers' rights at the top of the list of necessary changes. "Employers who have some control over workplaces and over workplace safety and health have the ability to educate workers and to ensure that they know what their rights are, and to provide them with the tools to make them feel safe," she said.
Smith also emphasized the importance of community and advocacy groups, which serve as another resource for workers to be educated about safety and their rights.
Brian Turmail, senior executive director of public affairs for the Associated General Contractors of America, said the AGC has taken action to find the root of the increase in fatalities for all construction workers. The association has partnered with Virginia Tech to examine the narrative of every construction death over the last three years, and will then release its findings this summer.
"Our concern is that we don't know enough about why these fatalities are occurring in our industry. We've taken it on as our responsibility to go and do that analysis so we can actually answer questions like, 'Why is it that the fatality rate is inching up for Latinos and inching down for non-Latinos?' … 'Are language issues an issue? Are cultural issues at play?'" Turmail said.
Almost all sources also pointed 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.
Usera was certain about one thing: Construction sites are more dangerous for Latino workers who don’t speak English. "Sometimes, guys that don’t speak English, they’re working with guys who don't speak some Spanish, and if something is going to happen, it's difficult to let them know what’s going on," he said.