Protecting a Multilingual Work Force

Oct. 26, 2005
Last year there were 21.4 million foreign-born persons in the U.S. labor force, and they died on the job at a far greater rate than native-born workers. What can you do to protect them?

In August, the Bureau of Labor Statistics jolted those working with foreign-born workers when it released a census of fatal occupational injuries for 2004 loaded with bad news for immigrant worker safety (see sidebar one). The number of fatal work injuries involving Latino workers, many of whom are foreign-born, rose 11 percent in 2004 after declining for the two previous years. Fatal injury rates for Hispanics also rose.

What's more, the wave of immigration is continuing: From 2002 to 2004, the number of foreign-born workers grew by about 1.2 million, accounting for a little less than half of the total labor force growth over that period.

The good news is that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), OSHA, consultants, industry groups and professional societies, such as the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), are developing programs and practices to help employers deal with a challenge that is likely to grow if present trends continue: protecting the foreign-born worker.

Start With the Job

When most people think about improving the safety and health of non-English speaking workers, they begin with training. That's not the way consultant Regina Barker sees it.

"The first thing we have to do is design the job for the diversity in the workplace," says Barker, a certified professional ergonomist who is the owner of Practical Ergonomics, a consulting firm with headquarters in Kansas City, Mo. "And then we have to make sure the PPE fits. After that's done, we can worry about training."

Jobs and the machinery they require should be adjustable to the changing work force. Barker, who has worked on ergonomics issues for the American Meat Institute, illustrates the importance of careful job design by referring to the disparity in the height of Asian and Latino workers, as opposed to Caucasians or African-Americans.

Barker believes the Japanese notion of "poke yoke," e.g. "mistake-proofing," is worth considering when designing a job. While this approach makes sense from a purely financial perspective for any job situation, it can make even more sense given the training and communication hurdles confronting an employer with a diverse work force.

"We also have to think if we have the right size of PPE to fit the culture," says Barker. For example, the fingers of an Asian woman tend to be thinner and shorter than those of Caucasians, while a Hispanic will have thicker fingers. Africans have a wider nose bridge, something to remember when ordering safety glasses.

Throw a Training Party!

Finding a person who speaks the language of the workers involved is an obvious requirement for effective training. But to leave it at that is "simplistic," according to Sherry Baron, M.D., coordinator of priority populations at NIOSH. "In terms of creating training that is appropriate, you have to think not only about the language, but also the form of the training."

In other words, the training has to be presented in such a way that people will be able to learn from it. For example, foreign-born workers may not be literate, so it's usually better to rely on visual aids instead of the written word. "Most adults are visual learners anyway," adds Barker.

Effective training also needs to pay attention to cultural differences. "You can't just translate the words, you have to translate the concepts, and do so in a way that is meaningful to people," says Baron. For instance, people in other countries have very different experiences with PPE and with the enforcement of safety and health laws, according to Baron.

Cultural differences extend beyond concepts and life experience. Baron says NIOSH is experimenting with the use of "tele-novelas," or Spanish-language soap operas, to communicate with Latino immigrants because, "it's an important part of Latino culture."

Barker makes the same point in a different way. "For some cultures, if you want to make something important, you have to make a party out of it," she says. "We just don't do that in American industry."

Don't Translate

"Good training can be a matter of life or death," says Daniel Garcia, secretary-treasurer for the Roofers and Waterproofers Local 95 in Santa Clara, Calif. With 10 years of training experience, Garcia straddles the Mexican-American cultural divide. He has lived in the United States for 20 years but spent the first 20 years of his life in Mexico.

Although he is bilingual, and conducts training in both languages, Garcia says good training isn't as simple as translating words or concepts.

"To be successful, you've got to know your people," he advises. "It's more than translation, I tell people it's about understanding the culture and relating to people."

For example, when talking to a group in Spanish, Garcia says, "I have to tell jokes and be informal for them to get it." A Spanish-speaking audience has to feel a personal connection to the trainer, so that the workers don't just receive information, but actually learn it.

Garcia's approach to English-speakers is different. "I have to be more formal, more specific and pay more attention to detail."

Gary Von Behren, coordinator of a union apprenticeship program for the Painters and Allied Trades in Aurora, Ill., has many years of experience training construction workers from a variety of countries. Like Garcia, he believes it is a mistake to try to train two language groups at a time, or to hire a translator. "One thing I've learned the hard way, is don't speak in English and then wait for a translator," says Von Behren. "It takes twice as long and it makes both groups irritable."

Beyond Spanish

The importance of understanding the workers' culture is not limited to Latinos. The construction industry, for example, now has many immigrants from Eastern European countries.

"We've had Poles, Bosnians and some Croatian workers," says Von Behren.

"Over the past couple years, we've gotten more and more requests for training in Portuguese and eastern European languages in certain parts of the country," according to Joe Visgaitis, director of safety and health at Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), an industry association based in Arlington, Va. In response, Visgaitis says, ABC is stepping up training and trying to make workers more aware of their rights under the OSH Act.

In order to communicate with workers about hazards and regulations on multilingual worksites, Visgaitis says he's seeing more companies moving away from word signs and toward symbol-based messages.

One very effective way to deal with a multilanguage work force is to emphasize "hands-on" training, according to James Platner, associate director, science and technology at the Center to Protect Workers' Rights in Silver Spring, Md. Platner and many other experts emphasized the enormous value of having workers perform the activity they are learning, while the trainer observes and helps them do better.

Final Steps

Barker breaks down the training process into three steps. First comes general information about the job in a classroom, followed by observing somebody doing the task in a real-life setting. The final step, which she says can take several days, involves having the worker do the job while someone competent oversees it and provides feedback.

"The biggest disconnect I see is having someone available for that third step who is skilled in doing the job appropriately," she says.

Too often, the worker is chosen for this on the basis of seniority alone. Such an employee may have plenty of experience and plenty of bad habits as well. "Whoever does this part of the training needs to know how to do the job correctly from a safety, ergonomics and productivity perspective," according to Barker.

Helen Chen specializes in workplace safety and health for San Francisco's Asian Law Caucus, a civil rights organization that serves Asian immigrants. Chen is an attorney, but she says the most important work she does is prevention. "The training piece is just critical, so that workers feel comfortable reporting a hazard or an injury and illness," she said.

No matter how effective your training program is, worksite hazards will persist. But, Chen says, many immigrant workers may be afraid to report hazards as well as injuries.

Chen thinks safety managers can play a crucial role here, but they need to take the initiative in order to overcome the fears of foreign workers.

"The safety manager needs to explain to workers that he or she is the one to go to when reporting hazards or injuries," she says. "Unless you are really proactive, a lot of these injuries and illnesses will not be reported."

To help workers overcome the barriers, Chen does a lot of role-playing with workers. Because of the extra moral support, she finds it is often helpful to have two workers begin the process of reporting hazards or injuries together. Finally, she advises employers to tell workers about OSHA. First, because many immigrants are unaware OSHA exists.

"Second, because even if you are a very kind and gentle safety manager, many workers may be afraid to report hazards or injuries to you."

Sidebar: Should Your Company Hire Only English-Speakers?

A significant number of U.S. safety professionals believe that to enhance safety and health, companies should make English the only language used on the job. That's one of the findings in a 2005 American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) white paper, "The Impact of Multi-Language Worksites on SH&E Professionals."

In a hurricane-shortened interview, Harry "Doc" Keesing, CSP, began to explain why he favors this arguably "politically incorrect" approach. "Because of the hazards in the petrochemical industry where I work, communication can be a matter of life or death," he said. Keesing is general manager of environment, safety and health at Turnaround Services Inc., a petrochemical service company located in Reserve, La.

In a letter published in the summer 2004 issue of ASSE's construction practice specialty newsletter, Keesing uses his own experience to defend the English-only worksite requirement.

"On more than one occasion, the issue of language barriers or the inability to communicate effectively has resulted in injuries, equipment damage, near-misses and, in one distance, a delayed rescue from a confined space."

Keesing adds that he has provided his services to a variety of facilities with a range of different programs to address the growing numbers of non-English speaking workers but there's only one that really works. "All employees shall be able to read, write and speak English." Some facilities in south Louisiana and Texas enforce this rule by not allowing suspect employees into the worksite until they have taken a reading comprehension test.

Before a safety professional recommends an English-only policy, however, it's a good idea to consult an attorney.

Research conducted during the development of the ASSE white paper found that English-only policies could be enforced under the following conditions:

  • The policy is job-related and a demonstrable business necessity.
  • It is effective only during certain periods of the workday.

Courts have found that acceptable "business necessities" can include workplace safety and health, and courts have sometimes allowed English-only policies to prevail over the opposition of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

If a company decides that safety requirements justify employing only those who can speak and write English, the ASSE white paper argues it is "critical for the SH&E professional to play a role in identifying these necessities."

Sidebar: Foreign-Born Workers at Peril

Immigrants currently make up nearly 15 percent (21.4 million) of the U.S. work force.

About half these immigrants are estimated to be undocumented: 10 to 12 million.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2003, approximately 48 percent of the foreign-born work force was Latino and 22 percent Asian.

Between 1992 and 2002, deaths among immigrant workers rose by 46 percent.

In 2004, 883 Latino workers were killed on the job, an 11 percent increase from 2003, following 2 years of declines. Last year the number of foreign-born Latinos who died at work tied the 2002 figure, an all-time high.

The construction industry now claims by far the largest number of foreign-born workers' deaths on the job.

Latino workers are dying at work at a higher rate than the total for the U.S. work force; in 2004 this gap widened still more.

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, AFL-CIO

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