Occupational Health & Safety

Lost in the Translation

Not being able to read a warning sign at a construction site or telltale on a piece of machinery can have deadly consequences.

ON a cold November evening in Michigan last year, a 20-year-old Hispanic worker was killed while removing bridge formwork as he stood atop an elevated truck bed. When he and a co-worker attempted to lower the platform, which could also serve as a dump truck, the bed malfunctioned and would not go down. A supervisor instructed the pair to attempt to raise the platform for a moment and then try lowering it again. The truck bed bulkhead was thrust upward, crushing the two workers against a bridge beam. They slid down the truck bed and dropped to the ground 3 feet below. They were rushed to the hospital, where the Hispanic worker died from multiple injuries.

Months of investigation by the Michigan Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (MIFACE) program led to nine serious rule violations concerning aerial lift platforms and one serious violation for not having a certified first aid provider on the work site. Among the major recommendations made by MIFACE were to ensure that multilingual workforces "comprehend instructions in safe work procedures for the tasks to which they are assigned," and that "employers should ensure that all aerial lift controls are properly labeled in a language understood by the operator."

The MIFACE investigation points to one of the most critical problems facing industry today: How do safety professionals go about training their non-English-speaking workers? In the MIFACE case, the worker in question spoke Spanish as his primary language. The investigation found the controls of the truck bed were not labeled (in English or any other language), and no supervisor working on site could communicate in Spanish. While the company did have a documented safety program that included weekly training, none of it was conducted in Spanish.

The problem is attracting attention around the nation, and not just because of the rise of Spanish-speaking people entering the workforce. According to several unions and worker organizations, other languages, such as Russian, Polish, and Asian languages, are increasingly being heard at heavy construction sites, asbestos abatement projects, and road construction locations.

"We're almost repeating history," says Thomas Haun, administrator for the Insulation Industry International Apprenticeship and Training Fund, which is affiliated with the Asbestos Workers' International Union, referring to America's acclimation to the large number of immigrants from Europe in the 19th Century. "Obviously, there's a huge influx. With the skills shortage in the construction industry we are starting to see, it's opened the door to immigrants that can work with their hands."

While the U.S. working population may be growing more diverse, the primary obstacle employers face is how to train the growing number of Spanish-speaking individuals entering the workforce. The 2000 U.S. Census noted one in 10 Americans over the age of five, or a little more than 28 million people, speak Spanish at home while speaking English "less than very well." That trend should only continue because 51.7 percent of all immigrants responding in 2002 came from Latin America. In all, more than 31 million immigrants were noted in the latest tally. The question facing employers, government enforcement agencies, and unions is how to communicate effectively to these new Americans their rights, their job duties, and the safety measures they need to follow in order to return home safely at shift's end.

The answers are being developed quickly.

Outreach on Many Fronts
NIOSH, EPA, and OSHA have extensive Spanish Web sites designed to help employers and employees communicate more effectively. OSHA's Spanish site, www.osha.gov/as/opa/spanish/index.html, initially focused on an overview of OSHA and its mission, how to file complaints electronically in Spanish, worker and employer rights and responsibilities, and a list of resources for employers and workers. More features have been added to the site since its launch last year, including the "eTools" section of important OSHA documents and releases, as well as links to other Spanish safety sites.

Some feel OSHA could be doing more. "[I'd like to see] bilingual training for every worker who has a language barrier," says Scott Schneider, director of occupational safety and health for the Laborers Health and Safety Fund of North America (LHSFNA). "If every worker got an OSHA 10-hour in their native language, that would be very helpful."

Spanish-speaking workers who are new to a job need safety training just like any other new employee. While waiting for a Spanish version of the OSHA 10-hour, many organizations are taking matters into their own hands. Schneider notes that LHSFNA is translating many of its materials into Spanish. (LHSFNA also is translating materials into Polish, mostly for the New York area.) The organization recently completed a road safety orientation safety-training module for road construction workers. The program, available in CD-ROM, can switch between English and Spanish with the click of a button.

Getting information and training to the many Spanish-speaking workers is helpful, but real progress must be made at individual work sites to ensure each employee understands training, warning signs and signals, and the instructions of his or her supervisor. Joe Walker, the marketing communications advisor for the International Safety Equipment Association, says ISEA is working to help employees understand how to use safety equipment. "We are working on producing materials in Spanish to meet the needs of employers. Our intention is to do that."

Safety information and initial training that every worker can understand is critical, but many point to the need for the continued ability to communicate with Spanish-speaking workers. The need for supervisors who can speak both languages is so great, many employers are handpicking some of the best Spanish-speaking workers for supervisor training. As someone who can relate to the cultural differences facing many co-workers, a bilingual manager can bridge the gap between employer and employee. "We are trying to get trainers from the ranks who are interested in training," Schneider says. "They've been through it, and that helps."

Haun agrees with that approach and is willing to take it a step further, pointing out bilingual supervisors also prove to new workers that hard work in this country pays off for new immigrants. "The quickest way to solve the problem is to find bilingual supervisors. If you've got a foreman who does not speak Spanish and a quality worker who speaks Spanish and English, many times he will become an assistant foreman to help bridge the gap. He becomes the spokesperson and sets the example. That shows people that there is a golden opportunity to move up in the company."

Sharing the Workplace Culture
Offering a way for workers new to the country to become more familiar with English and the American culture also can go a long way toward solving the communication problem, Haun points out. His organization strongly advocates the growing number of English as a Second Language (ESL) programs around the country. "These programs will help on down the line," he says. "[The Spanish-speaking workers'] kids will speak English, so this is a problem that can be solved in time."

ESL programs are designed to develop English-speaking skills, but they also help to acclimate participants to a whole new culture. Many Spanish-speaking workers are not aware of their rights as employees. Many fear they will not be allowed to stay in America if they cause a "problem" on a job site, even if they are legally documented immigrants. All of these factors just confound the safety issue, says Schneider. "The biggest problem with Spanish-speaking workers is that they don't know their rights. They're just concerned that if they speak up they'll be fired--and that's a real concern."

How large is the problem? That depends on whom you ask, but most unions and organizations will tell you miscommunication leads to accidents far too often. Not being able to read a warning sign at a construction site or telltale on a piece of machinery can have deadly consequences. "Workers have been told to work a machine they weren't trained for, and they can't read the signs and labels. That leads to accidents," says Rocio Jimenez, a research assistant for LHSFNA.

Voluntary Use of Bilingual Signage
While OSHA does not mandate that signs be posted in both English and Spanish, it does require that workers be informed and educated about workplace hazards in an effective manner, which could include bilingual signage, according to one OSHA official. Even without an explicit rule, many companies are choosing to post signs in both languages because they have such a high number of Hispanic employees.

More ways of ensuring every worker can understand signs, signals, and instructions are likely to surface. The Insulation Industry International Apprenticeship and Training Fund's Haun hopes to see even more ESL programs in the next five years. "I hope ESL programs will be as common as a high school education," he says. "We all need to know about, and promote, the resources we have now." He says many employers just don't know about many of the helpful programs that are out there.

One thing everyone agrees on--whether it is through acclimation projects such as ESL, bilingual trainers, or better enforcement and directions from government agencies--is that something must be done to protect non-English-speaking employees who work hard and try to follow safety guidelines. When the difference between a safe day on the job and a work-related fatality is a universally understood sign or symbol, that's not too much to ask.

This article originally appeared in the December 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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