New, Hispanic Workers May Not Understand Construction Safety Terminology

Specialized language used in the safety training for construction workers may not be understood by those new to the job or Hispanic workers, possibly putting them in danger, according to two Purdue University pilot studies.

Bryan Hubbard, assistant professor of building construction management, and James McGlothlin, associate professor of health sciences, teamed to lead the studies. Findings will be presented this week at the National Occupational Injury Research Symposium in Pittsburgh.

"Safety trainers must cover a lot of material in a short amount of time and, therefore, use a lot of jargon and acronyms," Hubbard said. "These terms are familiar to them and those in the industry, but our study found that this lingo isn’t understood by everyone on the construction site. Important information is covered in this training, and not understanding any part of it puts workers at risk."

Hubbard and McGlothlin's studies looked at terms used in the 10-hour safety training by OSHA that all construction workers are required to complete. The training involves topics such as how to safely work around construction sites. Words used in the training and in the Purdue study included PTO, which stands for power takeoff, a rotating driveshaft used to provide power to an attachment or separate machine; bird caging, which is when a wire rope frays; and lockout-tagout, a way to ensure electricity does not flow in a circuit.

The first study looked at construction safety training issues for employees new to construction. Hubbard and his team undertook the study to examine the causes behind the high number of work-related deaths and injuries in the construction industry, which previous studies have indicated are more likely to occur at the beginning of a construction worker's career.

To evaluate the effectiveness of the OSHA training, Hubbard and his team conducted three surveys with student interns in the construction industry: one before the OSHA training, one after the training and before working on the construction site for their first internship, and one after working at their first internship. The study was conducted in the summer of 2007.

The results indicated that although the training is successful in helping to bring awareness of safety issues on the construction site, many of the interns, who were mostly construction engineering management students at Purdue, didn't understand a large amount of the terminology and acronyms presented during the training. Hubbard said before proceeding with work on the construction site, safety instructors ensured that students understood the meanings of unfamiliar words.

The second study, led by McGlothlin, was a continuation of the first study, looking specifically at Hispanic construction workers, who have a high number of fatal accidents on construction sites. The survey looked at workers' perceptions of construction safety, their levels of safety training and their familiarity with construction terms. The survey was conducted in Louisiana in the summer and fall of 2007 among workers who were helping to rebuild after 2005's Hurricane Katrina.

This study examined the understanding of the same list of words in the Purdue student study and found that even fewer in this population understood the terms. Less than 20 percent of Hispanic workers understood any of the terms used in OSHA training, and some terms were understood by only 3 percent.

Hubbard and McGlothlin said a possible solution includes the use of visuals during training, including creating books where nearly every construction-specific word is accompanied by a picture.

"We shouldn't eliminate the acronyms and jargon from the training because these are terms workers will need to know, but what we can do is associate visual elements with these words so they are familiar with the terms and what they mean," McGlothlin said.

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