Responding to the sharp rise of Hispanic workers in the union construction industry in the United States and Canada, the LHSFNA recently completed the translation of all of its health alerts into Spanish.

“Among written publications, these alerts are the front line in our Fund’s efforts to help construction management improve health and safety on jobsites with Hispanic workers,” says LHSFNA Communications Manager Steve Clark.  On most worksites, health and safety issues are handled through daily or weekly toolbox talks in which company officials explain production goals while also addressing key safety concerns. The health alerts address the most common health and safety issues facing Laborers and their family members and are frequently distributed at these talks.  Currently, the Fund has 56 different health alert cards.

While some aspects of workforce collaboration can be handled without much verbal exchange among workers, safety is not one of them.  “In order for workers to communicate effectively around safety, they need two things,” says LHSFNA Executive Director Joe Fowler.  “First, they need to thoroughly understand the issues involved.  For this, they need instruction and guidance, using the language or languages they know best.  Second, they need to know enough basic English so that they can both issue and understand warnings and alerts that can arise at any moment on the worksite.”

“Most Hispanic workers are trying to learn English,” says LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck who, also, is Executive Vice President of the NEA – the Association of Union Constructors, “but they’re at different levels of development.  Unfortunately, few construction supervisors or foremen speak much Spanish.  They deliver their toolbox talks in English, relying on the best English-speaking Hispanics to translate for the others.  The obvious danger is that vital issues involving health or safety may not be getting through.”

The Spanish language health alert is a back-up and reinforcement tool.  “Of course, a written message is never going to work as well as one delivered by someone fluent in Spanish and knowledgeable about health and safety,” says Clark.

As in many other areas of the economy, bilingual skills are opening upwardly mobile career paths, even in the construction industry. “There’s a growing demand throughout the industry for bilingual stewards, crew chiefs, safety personnel, foremen and supervisors,” says Borck.

Bilingual skills and safety training programs are also on the rise.  One example is from the Laborers-AGC Education and Training Fund, LIUNA’s labor-management training arm that delivers programs and services to over 70 local Laborers’ training funds across North America.  Laborers-AGC has always placed a priority on curriculum development and instructor training to match industry and membership needs.  Their newest program, Laborers-AGC Vocational English for Speakers of Other Languages (VESOL), targets union members with limited English-speaking skills.

Though it has and will continue to translate its training materials into Spanish and other languages (Polish, Croatian and Portuguese, for example), Laborers-AGC VESOL program emphasizes the use of English terms that are based in the Laborers’ trade and in the construction industry.  The vocational focus makes learning more meaningful to the worker by connecting their jobs to what is learned in the classroom. Safety is number one as workers increase their workplace English comprehension and ensure continued employment opportunities and growth along the Laborers’ career path.  Local training centers in California, Illinois, New Jersey, Nevada and D.C. are among the first to have trained and certified instructors in Laborers-AGC VESOL program.

In another example, the LHSFNA is working with NIOSH to establish a worksite-based project, probably in Florida, to evaluate the effectiveness of English-speaking trainers working with Spanish-speaking trainees.

Another important safety resource that is now available in Spanish is the Roadway Safety Program.  Designed from the beginning to serve both English and Spanish speakers, this program’s CD-ROM version can flip from one language to the other at the click of a mouse.  Its large, laminated flip charts also come in both languages, as do all its handouts.

“Another advantage of the Roadway Safety Program,” says Scott Schneider, LHSFNA Occupational Safety and Health Division Director, “is its largely graphic presentation.  Most of its content can be understood from the visual presentation, alone.  While you’d always like the words translated, this training program – whether in English or Spanish – can help workers understand work zone hazards, whatever their native language.”

Work is underway now to further upgrade the program so that the spoken portions, currently only in English, will be in Spanish as well.  In addition, a Portuguese version is in preparation.

If the growing language problem in the U.S. and Canadian markets is going to be successfully addressed, more creative training and communication programs will be needed in many areas of construction, as well as other industries.  Schneider also mentions OSHA enforcement.  “OSHA could do more in construction with a more vigorous enforcement program that targets smaller jobsites where the greatest dangers are,” he says.  “OSHA needs to hire more bilingual inspectors and expand its outreach programs to make Hispanic workers aware of their right to a safe workplace.  The biggest issue for immigrant workers is their fear of speaking out about hazards.”

Construction jobs are among the most dangerous in the country.  Yet, they are among the most accessible for immigrants.  While Hispanics make up 11 percent of the total American workforce, they occupy more than 17 percent of construction jobs.

Between 1996 and 2003 (the last year for which data is available), the total number of construction workers killed in the U.S. increased 7.5 percent, from 1,047 to 1,126.  However, in that same period, Hispanic construction deaths increased from 133 to 260, an increase of 95 percent.  As a percent of total fatalities, Hispanics went from 12 percent in 1996 to 23 percent in 2003.

This trend is likely to continue.  Today, 40.4 million native and foreign-born Hispanic people reside in the U.S. – about one out of every eight residents.  By 2050, 25 percent of residents will be Hispanic.

Currently, Hispanics are passing African-Americans, becoming the largest non-Caucasion minority group in the country.  By 2020, the U.S. will be the second largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, behind only Mexico.

As Hispanics become an ever-larger section of the U.S. population and workforce, their particular health needs become more significant and demanding.  In its recently published brochure, Health Risks of Latino Americans, the LHSFNA addresses the four health risks that particularly plague Hispanics – diabetes, liver disease, cancer and tobacco use (the Fund has similar pamphlets on the health problems most common to Native Americans and African Americans).  The booklet identifies the most common symptoms of each problem and offers sources of additional information

As with occupational safety and health concerns, the language barrier and literacy issues impede efforts to enhance general health among Hispanics.

“Many of our health and welfare funds are experiencing an increase in the number of Hispanic participants,” says Mary Jane MacArthur, LHSFNA Health Promotion Division Director.  “Here at LHSFNA, we’re translating more of our materials, but each fund needs to find ways to ensure that Spanish speakers can fully access fund services.  Having a bilingual person on staff who can translate or having access to translators on short notice will help address the problem.”

Committed by its mission to improving safety and health for Laborers on and off the job, the LHSFNA continues to seek ways to overcome obstacles that language differences now impose on American worksites and workers.  We welcome any suggestions on programs or priorities that might enhance these efforts.