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Spanish-Language Training Courses Can Help Prevent Fatalities on Construction Sites

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If you’re a U.S. construction worker, you could be more at risk simply by being Hispanic. That’s the implication of the government data on work fatalities for 2013, the most recent year reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Preliminary results show a 7 percent annual increase in Hispanic work fatalities, compared to declines in every other ethnicity group. It’s indicative of an underlying problem — and it’s a growing concern in construction, which accounted for 40 percent of all jobsite fatalities documented by
the census.

No single approach is likely to turn this data around, but it should be reversible if addressed on multiple levels. Contractors and municipalities have a responsibility to see that their workers are trained effectively; that is, trained in ways that help the worker utilize essential safety information in real life.

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Despite industry efforts to promote professional training, too many contractors are still fulfilling the letter of the law with instruction that is hard to comprehend or retain. Even when offered with all the right intentions, weak training is unlikely to create “sticky” safety awareness.

Once professional training is established as the foundation of the solution, the language barrier needs to be addressed. One troubling statistic from the Bureau’s report is that 66 percent of all Hispanic workers killed in 2013 were born outside of the United States.
While the data doesn’t extend to language, it implies a strong relationship between Hispanic fatalities and a language barrier.

Technology Can Reverse the Data

Fortunately, technology is becoming increasingly viable as a way to reach Hispanic workers. According to a Pew Hispanic Center 2012 study, 78 percent of Hispanics surveyed said they have at least some familiarity and experience with going online. That’s considerably higher than it was three years prior at 64 percent, and it continues to rise.

As the Hispanic population moves online, it creates an opportunity to give construction workers 24-hour access to Spanish-language safety training. This is a giant step forward in safety awareness, and one that makes good business sense for the employer. Online training in general is the most economic, available and accessible source of education for a worker. And for Hispanic workers, Spanish-language training can be more than a convenience — it can be a lifesaver. This is particularly true of trench work, one of the industry’s most dangerous construction venues.

Some companies, such as United Rentals, are taking a proactive approach and have chosen to address Hispanic worker safety head-on by offering Competent Person Training (CPT) and Confined Space Entry instruction in Spanish. For example, United Rentals offers these courses on a regular basis at its U.S. trench safety branches. Recently, the company announced the launch of an online OSHA-compliant CPT training course through its United Academy training portal. In addition to its online offering, United Rentals is focusing on hiring bilingual classroom instructors with an emphasis on the Gulf region, Southern California and the Southeast/Florida.

The bottom line is: No worker should die or even be put at risk because of a language barrier. The construction industry prides itself on continuous improvement in safety techniques, sustainability, professionalism and technology — all of which mean very little if the workers themselves are shortchanged of critical information. Spanish-language Competent Person Training and Confined Space Entry training deserve a place at the head of that list.

Casey Willett is a Customer Training Manager for United Rentals Trench Safety.

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