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The Hispanic Workforce and Safety Culture

By Horacio Roman, M.A.

“Get Rich or Die Trying” is the title of rap song by artist 50Cent. Sadly, the title fittingly describes the experiences of many Hispanic workers in the United States. Recently, I became aware that Hispanics are the only demographic group in the U.S. whose fatality rate increased between 1992 and 2002. This increase triggered OSHA mandates targeting these workers.

Experts cite language, cultural factors, experience, training, and personal values as barriers to improving Hispanic workers’ safety. High fatality rates may also be due to the predominance of high-risk jobs (e.g., construction, agriculture, etc.) among Hispanic workers. Both reasons offer direction for safety improvements.

While the higher number of fatalities may be attributable to the high-risk jobs held by many Hispanic workers, 7,000 deaths is still unacceptable. Something can be done so let’s examine factors that may contribute to this problem. The most obvious is the language barrier. For example, safety policies, meetings, materials, trainings are typically in English, which is often a foreign language for these workers. The good news is that a major effort is underway to produce materials and conduct training in Spanish. Early signs of the importance of this effort are hopeful: the accident rate among Hispanic workers in North Carolina decreased with statewide use of Spanish materials and training.

Is translation of training materials necessary? Try reading this: Sicherheit Zuerst! Sûreté D’abord! Segurança Primeiramente! Yes, translation is important! Is translation of training materials enough? I suspect not.

Other factors to be considered include the values of many Hispanic immigrants. Like other immigrant groups, they are here to build a better tomorrow for themselves and their families. “Family” is a very important value for most Hispanic immigrants. Providing for their family by keeping their job sometimes means keeping a low profile, e.g., not speaking out, not standing up, and not being a leader. It sometimes means sacrificing their health and risking their safety. Hispanic workers may be employed without proper documentation, increasing their anxiety about job security and decreasing the likelihood they will risk “rocking the boat”. This job security issue is, I believe, a bigger challenge to safety than language.

A second values issue may be that many Hispanic workers do not have an appreciation for safety regulations. Employers in their country of origin often do not have to abide by standards such as those OSHA places on U.S. companies. So expecting and relying upon government regulation may not be an existing value for immigrant workers.

Behavior-Based Safety (BBS) can build on training and can incorporate existing values to support workers in implementing what they have learnt and working safely. The BBS model of observation, feedback, and positive reinforcement can transcend culture, personal experience, and individual history differences.

I will follow up in future articles on other issues to consider in addressing the increasing fatality rate among Hispanic workers. I welcome your comments and suggestions.