Construction is an inherently dangerous industry: Workers use sharp, powerful tools and caustic chemicals, lift heavy weights, and work at sometimes dizzying heights. Jobsite safety issues are magnified for immigrant workers, who are particularly susceptible to getting hurt on the job. According to a 2005 study by the Illinois Panel on Latino Workforce Injuries and Fatalities, workplace fatalities nationwide fell 16 percent between 1994 and 2003. But for Hispanics, workplace fatalities increased 21 percent. Foreign-born Hispanic workers account for about two-thirds of those deaths, the panel reported in September 2005.
The national study, “On the Corner: Day Labor in the United States,” was co-authored by the Center for the Study of Urban Poverty at UCLA, the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the Milano Graduate School of Management and Urban Policy at New School University. Released in 2006, the study reports that one in five day laborers—of whom 93 percent are immigrants—had been injured at work. Half of them never sought medical treatment for their injury, and nearly 70 percent reported that they had continued to work while in pain.
The reasons for the injuries vary, of course, but they often are related to language issues and the worker's own determination to work, says Dr. Susan Buchanan, an assistant professor of family medicine and occupational medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who has studied the health issues of day laborers in Chicago.
“None of the workers I interviewed had received training in any of the tasks they performed,” she says. “Some may be less than truthful with the employer about their experience about such things as electrical work. They often don't have supervisors who speak their language, and they're not all literate, so giving them a pamphlet about safety may not be helpful.”
Plus, many immigrant workers come from countries where safety isn't a priority, so they've never been taught about it. So even when employers provide all the required safety equipment, mishaps can still happen when immigrant workers aren't familiar with the gear but supervisors assume that they know how to use it. Eddie Servigon, vice president of operations for Legacy Homes in Dallas, vividly remembers the day he stopped at a jobsite and saw a Hispanic worker atop a 20-foot roof. He was wearing the required safety harness to prevent a fall, but had it attached to 30 feet of rope. Servigon explained how it was to be used. “He had no idea what the thing was for,” Servigon says. “He thought maybe it was to keep him from leaving the house.”
Legacy Homes has addressed the issue in a number of ways, including simple signs using pictures of safety equipment, such as hard hats and safety glasses. Hispanics pick things up much more quickly visually, as opposed to being given a written set of instructions, says Servigon, who is from Ecuador. So Legacy makes extensive use of on-site demonstrations to show the crews how jobs are supposed to be done.
Safety training is particularly effective if trainers put the emphasis on the workers' commitment to provide for their families, safety experts say. Without their income, their families would suffer, so it's important for them to work safely so that they don't miss work because of an injury.
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