Del. Focuses on Workplace Safety for Hispanic Construction Contractors

By | February 5, 2007

As Delaware’s rural landscape gives way to housing developments, immigrant workers who once took jobs in the agriculture and poultry industries are turning to home construction and landscaping.

While reaping the rewards, those workers also have become prone to workplace injuries, prompting efforts to ensure that Hispanic and other non-English speaking workers receive proper safety training.

“You can get in trouble if all you do is sit them down and show a video and it stops there,” said Ron Jester, an extension safety specialist with the University of Delaware in Georgetown. “That’s not adequate training.”

Jester, executive director of the Delmarva Safety Association, is joining with the state Department of Labor to sponsor two employer workshops this month on safely managing non-English speaking workers.

The workshops are scheduled for Monday in Dover and Feb. 15 in Wilmington. A similar event in Wilmington last year drew a standing-room-only crowd, but only about 20 employers have signed up for each of this year’s workshops.

“This year, the response is not so good,” said Paul Kessler, a safety consultant with the Labor Department, adding that companies still have time to sign up.

Jester said the workshops are targeted at, but not restricted to, the construction and landscaping industries. Topics to be addressed include safety training, cultural sensitivities and finding translators within the local community.

Three years ago, the DSA entered a formal alliance with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to reduce workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths among Spanish-speaking workers.

“With the reduction of the farmland, everything was being turned over to residential construction,” said Vince Soss, acting area director for OSHA, which is responsible for enforcing workplace safety laws in Delaware. “There was an increase in landscape workers, there was a huge increase in residential construction.”

“The majority of the time that we come on to a site in Delaware, it’s a bilingual work force,” Soss added.

With the increase in Hispanic workers came a corresponding increase in the number being hurt in construction accidents such as falls, and by landscaping equipment such as riding lawn mowers and chain saws.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Hispanics accounted for about 6 percent of the 4,360 nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses in Delaware resulting in lost work days in 2004. But they accounted for 15 percent of incidents in the construction and excavation industries, and equal percentages of hand-tool injuries and falls to lower levels.

Soss said roofing and siding has emerged as one of the more dangerous trades.

“That’s one of the leading causes of serious injuries or fatalities,” he said.

But Kessler said spreading the safety message to Hispanic workers and the people who employ them can be difficult.

“A lot of it is guys working out of their trucks, and that’s why it’s hard to get hold of these people for training,” he said. ” … Trying to get to the workers themselves is very difficult, because they just don’t want to talk to government.”

Another problem is the wide range of dialects within the Hispanic community.

“It’s very difficult to match all of the dialects,” said Ed Capodanno, state president of the Associated Builders and Contractors Inc., which has worked with Delaware Technical & Community College in recent years to offer Spanish-language courses geared toward construction site managers.

Capodanno said the biggest influx of Hispanics to the construction industry has been in Kent and Sussex counties.

“They are coming over from the other industries, and we are seeing a big influx of Hispanic workers,” he said. ” … We’ve been getting increasing demands to do bilingual training for Spanish-speaking workers.”

Kessler said improved training and more attention to safety could help employers lower their workers compensation premiums.

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On the Net:

OSHA:

http://www.osha.gov/dcsp/compliance_assistance/index_hispanic.html

Delaware Department of Labor’s Division of Industrial Affairs Services:

http://www.delawareworks.com/industrialaffairs/services

Associated Builders and Contractors Inc., Delaware chapter:

http://www.abcdelaware.com

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