Reducing Hispanic on-job death rate

Construction industry rallies

It’s the kind of story the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) realizes is told too often, but advances in the past year brings hope that it’s a story that will become less familiar. Juan Calixtro, a 27-year-old man from central Mexico, was hoping to earn money so he could support his elderly mother and someday get married. He traveled from his rural village to find work in the United States. He quickly found a job at a residential construction site in Texas. Much of his $7-an-hour salary was sent home to his mother. Four months later, in late 2004, he was killed when a forklift he was working near toppled.

Calixtro’s case illustrates a statistic the DOL hopes to reduce: the number of foreign-born Latino workers who die or are injured while working in the United States. Limited education, poor English skills, and sometimes-illegal immigration status conspire to put these workers at risk, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) studies.

According to the BLS, from 1997 to 2002, total fatalities in the construction industry rose by slightly more than 1%. During this same period, the number of Hispanic fatalities in the industry shot up by almost 50%. Foreign-born Hispanic workers are more likely to die than Hispanics born in this country.

Feds, business taking steps

The Hispanic death rate on the job has at least slowed. John Miles, OSHA regional administrator in Dallas attributes a dip in the last year, along with a 15% decrease in the number of all work-related deaths in Texas and its four surrounding states so far this year, to its aggressive outreach to Hispanic workers.

The DOL and OSHA, in conjunction with Latin American consulates and other community, faith-based, and governmental organizations, launched the Justice and Equality in the Workplace Program in 2001, to educate workers on their rights and responsibilities, as well as provide an avenue for non-English speakers to report violations of laws enforced by OSHA, Wage and Hour Division, and Office of Federal Contract Compliance.

"Recently, 13,000 construction workers at the $3 billion expansion of the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport completed a 40-hour health and safety course," Miles says. "Some of [the training] was tougher than what OSHA requires."

To reach the 7,000 Hispanic employees who don’t speak English and often can’t even read or write in Spanish, the course training relied heavily on pictures and hands-on training, he adds.

The injury rate at the DFW airport is 70% below a typical construction job of that size, he points out, and employers at the site have saved about $5 million in state workers’ comp claims.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao and Secretary for Foreign Affairs of Mexico Luis Ernesto Derbez in mid-2004 signed a joint declaration of commitment to improve compliance with and awareness of workplace laws and regulations protecting Mexican workers in the United States. One of the priorities of the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division is to increase worker protections in the low-wage industries that often employ high numbers of Hispanic workers.

"Through the end of the first half of the fiscal year [2004], the Wage and Hour Division collected just over $18.3 million in back wages for nearly 31,000 workers in key low-wage industries that typically employ large numbers of Hispanic workers," according to Victoria A. Lipnic, Assistant Secretary for DOL’s Employment Standards Administration.

OSHA has more than 140 Spanish-speaking employees, including Hispanic coordinators in each of its 10 regional offices and has created a Hispanic Taskforce. The agency has also established partnerships or working relationships with the Hispanic Contractors of America, the National Safety Council, the Mexican consulates, the Mexican government, and many other organizations to work together on outreach, education and assistance. The agency offers a toll-free help line [(800) 321-OSHA] that provides assistance in English and Spanish; a Spanish web page that is continually updated; and many documents and publications available in Spanish. For more information, you can contact the DOL, Employment Standards Administration, at (866) 4-USA-DOL or visit the web site at www.dol.gov/esa/.

The program already has begun to pay dividends. The Houston Justice and Equality in the Workplace Program, which was created in July 2001, has already aided the Wage and Hour Division to recover over $1.3 million in back wages for 1,900 workers as the result of investigations initiated by referrals from the partnership. Nearly 70% of all calls at the Houston program were referred to the Department of Labor.

"Our overall goal is a 15% reduction of all fatalities [for all workers] over the next five years," says Miles. "With the immigrant worker population representing a quarter of that number, this will make a big difference."

The American Society of Safety Engineers Los Angeles Chapter, along with the newly formed Safety Professionals and Latinos in the Workplace, convened the first "Safety for Latinos in the Workplace" conference in November, aimed at offering practical insight and tips into the Latino work force, including safety problems and ways to communicate information to this population, the latest resources available to the Latino work force, and up-to-date information from OSHA and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

Speak the workers’ language

According to OSHA’s interpretation of regulation 1910.1200(h), when employers have a training requirement, they must provide it in a language the worker can understand. Teaching in the appropriate language, however, is only the beginning. Successful training of Latino workers must be sensitive to differences in culture and education that distinguish Latinos from other workers — and that even divide Latinos among themselves. But to truly affect workers’ behavior and attitudes requires more than mere fluency in the language.

"We recruit instructors who are from the ethnic groups we are training," explains Joseph Halcarz, president of BEST Institute, the Texas company that developed the training program for DFW airport workers. Instructors and curriculum developers are bilingual, and many have worked in construction themselves.

And the efforts are not only centered in the Southwest, the region with the largest concentration of foreign-born Hispanic workers.

Patricia Clark, OSHA’s regional administrator in Buffalo, NY, says her office has allied with HUB Inc., a nonprofit corporation providing bilingual, bicultural assistance to Hispanic residents in that area. "We will reach out to build trust, raise awareness, and educate employers and workers about safety and health," promises Clark. "We recognize the value of a collaborative relationship in achieving these goals."

For more information, contact:

  • Patricia Clark, Regional Administrator, OSHA-Buffalo, NY, 5360 Genesee St., Bowmansville, NY 14026. Phone: (716) 684-3891.
  • Joseph Halcarz, President, BEST Institute Inc., Garland, TX. Phone: (972) 926-9390.
  • John Miles, Regional Administrator, Occupational Safety and Health Administration-Dallas, TX, 8344 E. RL Thornton Freeway, Suite 420, Dallas, TX 75228. Phone: (214) 320-2400.