Over the next several months, the Home Builders Institute (HBI), the workforce development arm of NAHB, will be visiting cities around the country to talk up a new training tool to help contractors reduce jobsite falls among their Hispanic workers.

This program, called Sed de Saber-Construction Edition, is the Institute’s response to a new directive that the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued last month that rescinds a former directive dating back to 1994, when residential builders were allowed to bypass fall-protection requirements.

Since then, NAHB has continued to develop a series of jobsite safety training programs. The association recently received a $220,000 grant from the Department of Labor specifically for fall-protection training, says Rob Matuga, NAHB’s vice president of labor safety and health policy.

NAHB and OSHA jointly developed the safety standards that form the starting point for HBI’s new training regimen that over a 20-week period teaches Hispanic workers construction terminology and has users understanding and speaking conversational English. HBI is charging companies $50 per month per employee for this training, which it’s offering through local partners such as community colleges and Catholic Charities.

“The challenge, even for an organization of NAHB’s size, is to create and disseminate practices that have a statistically significant impact on the number of casualties,” explains Sergio Salmeron, HBI’s director of Hispanic/Latino Affairs, who’s spearheading the training initiative. “We believe that teaching Construction ESL [English as a second language] and Safety to Latino workers will impact these workers' colleagues too, and it just makes sense for our industry.”

HBI is introducing this training program at a time when fatal occupational injuries have been declining. The latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics find that workplace deaths decreased by 16.8% to 4,340 in 2009. Falls accounted for 12% of workplace fatalities that year and were down 27% from fatal workplace falls in 2007.

About half of all fall-related deaths occur in the construction sector. Overall fatalities from construction decreased by 16% in 2009, following a 19% drop in 2008. These data, of course, are attributable in part to the significant decline in residential and non-residential construction activity during the recession. Nevertheless, fatal injuries involving workers in the construction of buildings fell by 27% last year.

Hispanics workers accounted for 668, or 15.4%, of all workplace fatalities last year, according to BLS data. Of that total, 20% of those Hispanic worker deaths were caused by falls, and BLS data have shown that Hispanics in some years have accounted for as many as one-third of all deaths caused by falls from residential roofs.

In early December, HBI launched the first of its series of safety summits in New Orleans, where it presented its program over three days. That presentation, says Salmeron, drew between 300 and 400 participants who included construction workers. It included videos as well as a live performance that, Salmeron says, showed in a humorous way Hispanic workers struggling with their language barriers.

“The language barrier is huge, and a Spanish-speaking supervisor isn’t always at the jobsite,” says Salmeron, who believes that builders that adopt this training program are making a statement that they are no longer taking a lax attitude toward workplace safety. “It’s not just an issue of keeping OSHA off your back. It’s about creating synergies among your workers.”

HBI’s next safety summit will be in Raleigh, N.C., and the Istitute has summits planned for Chicago and Los Angeles. As part of its pitch, HBI recommends that builders and contractors consider hiring risk management companies to assess their jobsite safety needs. He concedes, however, that getting builders on board with this at a time when many are still struggling to make ends meet is a tough sell.

John Caulfield is senior editor for Builder magazine.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Washington, DC, New Orleans, LA, Chicago, IL.