Safety Information Eludes Some Non-English-Speaking Construction Workers

By Jim Byrne Feb 6, 2008
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Some non-English-speaking construction workers are either not aware of, or ignoring, workplace health and safety information, says a federal advisory panel.

Despite the widespread availability of health and safety information, construction companies and their employees are generally unaware of the information, says a work group of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health (ACCSH). In addition, many non-English-speaking workers who have undergone safety instruction do not follow it, says ACCSH’s Diversity and Multilingual Work Group.

A major problem is that some workers do not understand the health and safety information, so they are not able to apply what they have learned, said Daniel Murphy, vice chairman of the work group and vice president for construction services of the insurer Zurich. “We’re beyond the point where industry is unaware of the need to provide a safe workplace for non-English-speaking employees, but they’ve got to do a better job,” he added.

However, attempts are being made to increase safety awareness among non-English- speaking construction workers, Murphy said. That includes a pilot project involving construction contractors in Arizona who are partnering with Arizona State University and Mexico’s Monterrey University to provide English-language training on laptop computers. When workers complete the course, they are given the laptop computers, which are paid for by the participating companies.

In addition, much progress has been made in translating safety materials into many languages over the past 15 years, said Thomas Broderick, co-chairman of the work group and executive director of the Construction Safety Council in Hillsdale, Ill. OSHA and other organizations provide safety information that is translated into multiple languages. The translated material is available at www.oshacampus.com, which also offers a 30-hour online multilingual training course on construction safety. In addition, the Electronic Library of Construction Occupational Safety and Health provides user-friendly information about safety and health for construction workers at its web site, www.cdc.gov/elcosh. “Now we have to make it work,” said Broderick. But, “if it doesn’t work using traditional training materials, the work group should be looking at cultural issues,” he added.

North Carolina Department of Labor Assistant Deputy Commissioner Kevin Beauregard said the best way to reach the workers is through the prime and general contractors because “they have a lot of authority” over their workers.

To increase the likelihood that safety information is disseminated to non-English-speaking workers, the work group recommended to the full committee that it be retained and that its focus be expanded to include spreading construction safety information in multilingual form, as well as developing methods to increase the information’s use.

In addition, the work group recommended a separate work group be established to deal with issues facing women in the construction industry, an area that has been the responsibility of the diversity work group.

Jim Byrne is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area. He has extensive experience writing about federal small business policy and health care.

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