The population of the U.S. is more diverse than ever before, a trend that shows no signs of reversal in the future. At the current rate, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that by 2060, one out of five Americans will be foreign-born. For the Hispanic population specifically, the change will be even more pronounced. The report expects native Spanish speakers to more than double their current numbers by 2060, thus comprising nearly 30 percent of the total population.
Naturally, as the total population grows more diverse, so will its workforce. But statistics relating to Hispanics in America's construction industry are not as positive. A new study by the American Society of Safety Engineers and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health sheds light on an emerging problem: an increased risk of injury and death for Hispanic construction workers. The report cites the earliest statistics available via the Department of Labor (from 2013), which found Hispanics were the only ethnic group to see an increase in workplace fatalities that year, in all industries including construction. This follows the trend of a higher occupational mortality rate for Hispanics in the last 20 years, at 5.9 per 100,000 full-time employees, compared to 4.0 for the workforce as a whole.
The data does not point to any inherent lack of skill or competence on the part of Hispanic workers, but rather to a larger organizational problem created by difficult communication and incomplete regulation. According to analysis by University of Massachusetts-Lowell Professor Maria Brunette, the study stands out among the historically scarce research on the health and safety of a booming demographic, and the possible consequences of such a blind spot. With attention now focused on this complex problem, however, it may be easier to find a solution.
"In 2013, Hispanics were the only ethnic group to see an increase in workplace fatalities."
As the ASSE and NIOSH report explains, Hispanic workers' increased risk for injury and death is compounded by two other common factors: age and place of employment. Young age is generally correlated to an increased risk of injury in workplace accidents. In 2013, 28 percent of Hispanic workers (both native and foreign-born) employed in construction were between the ages of 16 and 24. This is compared to the same age group of white non-Hispanic workers, who comprised 12 percent of the workforce. Employees of small businesses and contractors also bear a disproportionate risk of worker injury. The report acknowledges that the definition of "small business" is obscure in an industry like construction, where 90 percent of businesses employ 20 or fewer workers. Still, "evidence suggests that smaller businesses experience a disproportionate burden of occupational injuries, illnesses and fatalities," according to the study. About 54 percent of Hispanic construction workers were employed by a company of fewer than 10 employees in 2013. On the other hand, only 27 percent of non-Hispanic whites worked for an employer of similar size.
Addressing problems, creating solutions
The combination of these factors means that a Hispanic construction worker, who is generally younger than his nonminority counterparts, and typically works for a small company, faces a significantly increased risk of injury compared to the rest of the construction workforce, not to mention the general working population. But only one of these factors (ethnicity) is expected to see a marked population increase over the next several years, per the previously mentioned census data. This has led to initiatives aimed at not only increasing the awareness of the risks facing Hispanic workers, but also taking steps to close the gap through outreach and understanding.
As previously mentioned, a lack of research surrounding the issue of Hispanic construction worker injuries, as noted by Brunette, only serves to exacerbate the problem. In her review of existing research on the subject, Brunette identified four key approaches aimed at increasing the available research on the risks of Hispanic workers, and thus provide greater insight and practical solutions for reducing injuries and deaths. The first, and perhaps the most complicated, involves understanding and respecting Hispanic workers' cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds.
"Hispanic workers bring with them a strong and diverse background that has an effect on their work attitudes and expectations," Brunette wrote. "Such a background will have a significant role throughout all the stages of a research project including the design, development, implementation, and evaluation stages." Primarily, this should involve working to reduce the difficulty of communication that pervades a multicultural workforce by, for example, working toward greater dissemination of safety regulations printed in Spanish.
"Hispanic workers must learn how to speak out against unsafe working conditions."
According to Brunette, care must also be taken to ensure Hispanic workers know when and how to exercise their right to speak out against unsafe working conditions, whether it be to their supervisor or government regulators. Brunette recognizes that this brings up an entirely different issue, in that some Hispanic workers live as undocumented citizens and fear retribution for voicing safety concerns. This is an additional consideration that must be taken into account when developing strategies to reduce the risk of Hispanic worker injuries. Brunette also recommends future research encourage participation from Hispanic workers to more effectively respond to their concerns for safety and suggestions for improvement.
Beyond the realm of construction, OSHA presents a more general plan for reducing workplace fatalities by addressing "The Fatal Four." These are the four most common causes of death on the job, and they stay relatively constant in rate of occurrence each year. Starting with the most common first, the Fatal Four includes falls (37 percent of injuries), "struck by object" (10 percent), electrocutions (9 percent) and "caught-in/between" (3 percent). If the proper safety guidelines were implemented at every workplace and every death from the Fatal Four were prevented, according to OSHA, it would save 478 lives every year.
In any workplace, one death is one too many. Being aware of the vulnerabilities that impact safety outcomes makes for better informed employees and managers, and leads to an overall safer work environment.
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