Wilbur Cancino began his fateful four-day walk from Mexico to McKinney, Texas, near Dallas on a hot Monday morning in June 2001. Arriving Thursday, Cancino met and joined a five-man framing crew for a house going up in nearby Plano. He worked Thursday afternoon through Sunday, was off Monday due to rain, and was back at work Tuesday, June 19th. He was on the roof when a truss fell. Cancino tried to catch it. Instead, he plunged 10 feet head first onto a concrete slab. Cancino, 23 years old, died moments after his fall.

In the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) investigation that followed, Cancino's death was determined to be his own fault for not following safety procedures. Neither the subcontractor nor the general contractor received a citation or were held responsible, although someone paid for Cancino's brother to ride a bus to McKinney to claim the body.

Cancino's death is just one of a grim, but growing number of Hispanic workers who die or are injured on the job each year. What is raising concerns among OSHA officials and others is that the rate of workplace injuries and fatalities among Hispanics is rising while the reverse is happening for most other ethnic groups. More disturbingly, the rate of injuries and fatalities is rising faster than the growth of Hispanic employment would suggest.

According to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of white and black workers who died on the job in the U.S. has steadily declined during the past decade, with 4,168 white and 563 black workers suffering fatal on-the-job injuries in 2001. But for Hispanics, the number of deaths has risen each year, from 611 in 1994 to 891 in 2001, which represents a jump from 9 percent of worker fatalities to 15 percent. Beginning in 1997, the fatality rate for Hispanic workers began to climb faster than Hispanic employment, from 51.2 deaths per million Hispanics employed to 60.1 per million in 2001, according to Big Builder magazine's analysis of BLS data. In contrast, the fatality rates for whites has dropped over that same period, from 46.0 to 41.7 per million employed; and for blacks, from 47.6 to 38.0 per million, respectively.

Construction has the distinction of leading all U.S. occupations in fatalities. It accounted for 1,225 or 21 percent of the 5,900 workplace deaths recorded in 2001. Hispanics accounted for a disproportionately high 23 percent of those industry deaths, according to BLS data. Among 146 fatalities on residential jobsites, one third were Hispanic.

How builders are attempting to address the rising incidence of fatal jobsite injuries among Hispanic workers is a sensitive topic. Few are willing to discuss the topic beyond the context of their existing safety programs.

One point seems clear though. As the number of Hispanic immigrant workers like Wilbur Cancino continues to grow on construction jobsites, so too will the hidden costs -- not to mention the pain and suffering -- that go along with rising jobsite injuries and fatalities.

Builder Burden?

Insurers do not look favorably on deaths and injuries in the workplace. In today's "hard" insurance environment, jobsite fatalities have contributed to greater difficulty in finding insurance, larger premiums, less coverage, and more overall financial exposure for the builders, or worse, no insurance at all. In addition, OSHA investigations of deaths and injuries can cause costly delays as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars in citations. That's before litigation costs. Workmen's compensation rates -- and payouts -- can also increase.

Estimates of those added costs are hard to come by, but they are clearly being felt by builders. Also being felt is the growing public and governmental scrutiny of safety practices and training, especially as they apply to non-English-speaking workers.

The problem is particularly vexing for builders, since the vast majority of Hispanic workers in the residential trade aren't employed by builders, but by the firms they contract with. And the issue of just how much control builders can exercise on residential jobsites remains a significant matter of debate -- if not a sore point -- between builders and enforcement agencies like OSHA, despite builders' legitimate efforts to improve jobsite safety.

Of particular concern for builders is OSHA's highly controversial Multi-Employer Citation Policy (MECP). This policy -- which effectively authorizes OSHA to issue citations to all parties up and down the line at a jobsite including the general contractor or builder for violations -- has been an important weapon in OSHA's efforts to secure safer workplaces for all workers. While the MECP wasn't created with specific ethnic groups in mind, the failure to adequately train non-English-speaking workers in operations and safety or to monitor their performance can be considered factors in creating hazardous conditions.

Residential builders intensely dislike the MECP, contending that OSHA doesn't fairly take into account the differences between commercial and residential construction in its application. Peter Reinhart, senior vice president and general counsel of Hovnanian Enterprises, in Red Bank, N.J., says, "OSHA does a good job of trying to protect the safety of American workers, but they don't understand residential construction. A commercial construction site has a structure and a general contractor has more control, so it makes some sense to place more responsibility on the general contractor. With residential construction, the worksites have hundreds of acres, and general contractors must rely on their subcontractors. I think it's unfair to take punitive actions against a general contractor in a residential construction setting."

John Henshaw, administrator and the assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, and who has a background in construction, acknowledges the difference and the fact that the policy scares many people. But, he says, "You can't say that workers in larger jobs can be safer than those on smaller jobs. We must look at all workers in small and large jobs. The question is: How do you get [high levels of safety]?"

Henshaw contends the steps required to avoid liability under the policy are reasonable. "Many people do them already," he says. "The general contractor must ensure that subcontractors aren't creating hazardous, unsafe worksites. He must tell the subcontractor up front that things must be done safely and in compliance with the law, and he must monitor safety as part of performance, just as he monitors finances."

Builders remain concerned, however, about how aggressively OSHA is applying the MRCP in the housing sector, especially after David Weekley Homes came under fire from OSHA in 2000 for essentially failing to constantly monitor subcontractors at a worksite. According to attorney David G. Sarvadi, a partner at Keller and Heckman LLP, in Washington, D.C., the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission rejected OSHA's claim on the basis that the Houston-based builder had documented adequate efforts to ensure safety at the site. Despite David Weekley's win, residential builders are left to wonder who OSHA may go after next.

"The biggest reason there has been more concern about the MECP recently," Sarvardi says, is OSHA's policies protecting against falls. "OSHA has pushed harder on this," he said. But "confusion has arisen due to the different standards that are required. Some states are pushing harder than others. Even one OSHA area office can push harder than others."

Rising Tide

Clearly, the concern for injuries and fatalities among Hispanic workers has become more acute as the number of Hispanic workers -- who were essential in reducing the severity of labor shortages in the construction industry in the late 1990s -- continues to grow within the building industry. Estimates vary, in part because white Hispanics have been counted as both white and Hispanic until recently. One set of figures, however, shows that from 1995 to 2001, the number and proportion of skilled residential construction trade workers who were Hispanic grew from 581,000 (and 11.4 percent respectively) to 1,299,000 (20.6 percent), based on BLS figures and estimates by the NAHB. Their numbers have also grown among unskilled laborers working at residential construction jobs, from 165,000 (21.2 percent) to 363,000 (33.3 percent) over that same period.

The acceleration of fatal Hispanic jobsite injuries has drawn a variety explanations as well efforts to find solutions.

Javier Arias, chairman of the six-chapter Hispanic Contractors Association in Texas (where most Hispanic immigrants are Mexican), says he believes that the language barrier is a continuing problem. But he says he thinks that culture remains the larger contributing factor. The "macho" mentality of Hispanic people is significant, he says, because it translates into workers believing that they can do anything and that nothing will happen to them. It also reduces their willingness to undergo training. Arias says: "[Workers] don't know they need training. They think they should just know how to do things."

The resistance to training can be deadly. Arias says that "the majority of fatalities are in the first week or the first day on the job. The workman has not gone through any safety training or any training about the tools or the work. Most people from Mexico have never worked with electrical tools or equipment like forklifts, tractors, electrical generators, water pumps." American workers, on the other hand, are more likely to be familiar with such equipment; and if they don't know how something operates, they are more likely to ask.

OSHA's Henshaw attributes some of that mentality to ingrained expectations: "When an immigrant comes to the U.S., he may come from a culture where safety and health are not paramount, where an employer is not responsible for a safe workplace, or the immigrant is so desperate to please that he will take risks that an American citizen wouldn't."

Stewart Cline, CEO of Morrison Homes, of Alpharetta, Ga., is among a number of builders ("Practicing Safety") who have tried to bridge the gap. Morrison Homes initiated an extensive Spanish-language training effort in 2000-2001. About 10 percent of Morrison's own construction employees have Hispanic backgrounds and speak Spanish well. But Cline called the initiative "only moderately successful," after realizing the subcontractor's workforce would not follow instructions from these individuals. "There is usually one lead individual who speaks English, while the rest of the crew only speaks Spanish. The crew will only take direction from this foreman," Cline says, noting that Hispanic workers "respect the chain of command to a much greater extent than the English-speaking crews."

Wider-spread training, however, is still seen as a critical response to the issue of jobsite injuries. The NAHB and OSHA are taking steps to try to turn the tide, according to Robert Matuga, NAHB's director of labor, safety, and health. The association published a Spanish translation of its "NAHB-OSHA Job Safety Handbook" and another on tool safety in 2002. A "Scaffold Safety Handbook" is due out this fall. NAHB has also received a grant from OSHA to deliver safety training. In the past two years, Matuga says, NAHB has held 32 one-day training events in which about 1,500 individuals -- mostly supervisors but also some subcontractors -- attended. The sessions covered the four major hazards in residential construction: falls, electrical safety, "struck-by," and "caught-in" or "crushed-by" hazards. "[Attendees] take the information back to the worksite," Matuga says. More sessions are planned following an expanded OSHA-NAHB alliance signed in May.

OSHA, meanwhile, has also launched Hispanic Outreach Programs of its own. It launched a new Spanish-language Web site to promote safety education for Hispanics and hit the airwaves with 650 Spanish-language radio public service announcements about safety that started in May. The agency has recruited more Spanish-speaking employees and upped the number of training centers from 12 in 2002 to 20 in 2003. It also has begun handing out Spanish-language safety pamphlets to individuals waiting to be picked up for contractor jobs and working with church groups in Texas about workers' rights to safe workplaces.

Sharing the Risk

The bottom line in reversing the numbers of Hispanic injuries and deaths is the same as it is for all workers: Safer jobsites are more productive jobsites.

Hovnanian's efforts at instituting and enforcing a stronger safety program resulted in a 75 percent to 80 percent drop in workmen's compensation claims. "We noticed that a couple of years ago when we looked at the numbers," according to Tim Mason, vice president of risk management. But that wasn't the reason the builder started its program. Mason says: "We did it because Hovnanian believes safety is morally and practically important."

In the current era of expensive, difficult-to-get insurance, a builder's safety record can be a critical factor in getting coverage and have a direct impact on the bottom line. Robb Pigg, vice president of operations at Shea Homes, in Walnut Creek, Calif., says, "We were a pioneer in a wrap-up insurance program that covers liability and workmen's compensation. This creates a focus on safety, because it's our money. It creates a responsibility for the trades to have active safety programs, but also for us to have one because the risk is born by Shea. [Subcontractor safety] goes directly to our safety performance in being able to insure that risk." With the focus on safe behavior, Shea has seen reductions of 4 percent in accident frequency and 31 percent in accident severity since January 2002.

Mary Silva, Castle and Cooke Homes' safety officer for the Los Angeles builder, identifies yet another benefit of a strong safety program -- less stress about OSHA's Multi-Employer Citation Policy. Silva says that "an employer who gets cited [by OSHA], but has safety documentation, has an affirmative defense. There must be evidence that there is a safety policy, that regular inspections have been done, and that contractors have been counseled. If you're doing everything you're supposed to do -- and you can prove it -- you don't need to worry about multi-employer citations."

Javier Arias says he believes that immigrant Hispanic workers must adapt to the realities of the American worksite, overcome their macho culture, and accept the need for training both on and off the jobsite. Subcontractors must provide adequate training, he says, whether their workers are actual employees or so-called independent contractors. But he also says he believes general contractors and builders must implement and enforce safety programs from the top. "Safety is everyone's responsibility," he says. "Nothing is worth more than a life."