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Focus on language helped drive down injuries for Spanish-speaking construction workers in Colorado

Efforts by insurers, construction companies and government to offer safety training also has financial benefit

Will Pickering (left), construction safety instructor, demonstrates harness safety technique to Cristobal Delgado on a training scaffold at Haselden Construction, 6950 S. Potomac, Centennial, CO, on February 20, 2019. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Cristobal Delgado spent three years working as a roofer after moving to the U.S. from Panama. He took a risk on every roof that he climbed because he’d never received a minute of safety training.

He mentioned this during a fall-protection safety seminar given by his new employer, Haselden Construction in Centennial, which put the Spanish-speaking Delgado through six hours of fall-protection training — in Spanish — that included learning the proper way to attach a harness, climbing securely atop 18-foot-high scaffolding and how to fall (“Bend your knees”).

“Three and a half years as a roofer and this is the first actual fall-protection training he’s ever received,” said Rene Gonzalez, Haselden’s bilingual senior environmental safety training manager. “This is the trend I keep talking about. These guys are not getting the training.”

Gonzalez then turned to ask Delgado — in Spanish — about training at his old employer. “Not even English training was offered to the English (speaking) guys,” Gonzalez said.

Rene Gonzalez (second from left, back row) teaches a Spanish language construction safety course at Haselden Construction in Centennial on February 20, 2019. In attendance are Jose Rios (right front), Cristobal Delgado (left front), Francisco Juarez (right back), Efrain Nunez (left back). (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Such training is required by law. And the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Act requires employers to offer training “in a language and vocabulary workers can understand.” But that doesn’t mean this happens. For all industries, improper fall protection was OSHA’s most frequently cited violation last year. At number eight? Failure to provide a fall protection training program.)

And among the nation’s 11.2 million construction workers, 30.2 percent identify as Hispanic or Latino. It’s not known how many workers understood training in English, but a study from 2009 found that 25 percent of construction workers were born in another country and 62 percent of those who identified as Hispanic did not speak English well or at all, according to The Center for Construction Research and Training.

“You’ll find people from Central and South American who come to our country to work and they may not be familiar with safety practices as native Americans are,” said Xavier Gonzalez, safety consultant for Pinnacol Assurance, Colorado’s largest workers compensation insurer, which has made a big push for clients to safety train construction workers. “I’m not trying to generalize, but a lot of times I find that when you ask Latino workers to do something, they’ll do it whether you give them the tools or not. Whereas native workers will ask for the resources. They all should ask for the resources and the tools to do the job correctly.”

Gonzalez said Pinnacol offers free safety training to all its customers. He also visits job sites to interact with employees and point out ways to make the site safer. A training manual or video often isn’t enough.

“I like OSHA’s requirement that an employer has the obligation to train employees in a manner that the employee understands. That could be sign language, cartoons, whatever,” said Gonzalez, who estimates that one third of Pinnacol’s 1 million covered employees work in construction. “If the employer is willing to hire someone who doesn’t understand English, the employer has to make sure they can understand.”

Francisco Juarez (right) and Jose Rios (middle), examine construction safety harnesses during a Spanish-language training course taught by Rene Gonzalez (left) at Haselden Construction in Centennial on February 20, 2019. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Emphasis on safety

Safety training for construction workers was hit and miss in the 1990s. That’s when the National Center for Construction Education and Research was created. Back then, the nonprofit needed to define what training meant everywhere in the U.S. so everyone was trained to the same safety standard and the credentials were accepted in any state in which they might work.   

“We needed to standardize training to mean the same thing no matter where you were,” said Jennifer Wilkerson, NCCER’s director. “Then we can go and find out if someone has actually had training.”

The organization created curriculum to help companies train employees on safety and added Spanish translations in 2006. But a worker shortage facing the industry in recent years is partly to blame for increased job site safety risks as a new, younger and often international workforce replaces retiring skilled laborers.

“We need to train to the same safe standards,” she said. “If we look at the numbers, 30 percent are Hispanic and they’re concentrated at entry-level jobs, like concrete laying and rebar. We need to get them trained so they can fill the positions for journeyman level. We want them to move into crew leadership, frontline managers and superintendents.”

There’s not really an agency that keeps the construction industry in check for safety. OSHA may check on job sites if tipped off, but it doesn’t have the resources for individual site inspections. It also doesn’t investigate every single fatality at construction job sites if it learns the death was caused by heart attack or an unrelated traffic accident, according to the Denver office of OSHA.

Often, OSHA doesn’t learn about the lack of training until it’s too late, said Gonzalez, with Haselden.

Rene Gonzalez (left) provides instruction to Francisco Juarez atop a training scaffold at Haselden Construction in Centennial, CO, on February 20, 2019, during a construction safety course taught in Spanish. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“Most companies, especially in construction, if you’re legal to work and you’re an able-bodied person and you tell me you can do these things, OK have at it. Here’s a harness the last guy left,” said Gonzalez, who joined Haselden three years ago but has worked in construction safety for more than 20 years. “…If something happens, that’s the key. Then (OSHA) will find out what training they had and ask what training can you prove this individual received on this particular harness and in this situation.”

But companies are finding there’s a financial benefit to training workers. Workers comp claims have declined in Colorado and the cost to pay them has gone down, too, according to the state Division of Insurance. Claims dropped to 18.4 per million in 2016 from 26.3 per million in 2002. That, in turn, has led to five consecutive years of lower “loss costs,” which means insurers and employers are paying less in lost wages or medical costs when a worker is injured. The insurance division approved a 16.7 percent reduction in loss costs for 2019.

“The rates for insurance have a relationship with the actual cost being paid out in prior years and the expected cost in future years,” said Paul Tauriello, director of the state’s Division of Workers’ Compensation. “Those rates have been drastically dropping, in double digits in the last couple of years. That’s due in a large part to the success of safety in the workplace and safety training and safety equipment. The culture of safety is improving and work processes are smarter and more efficient.”

The state doesn’t know exactly how many construction workers were injured each year. Insurers report aggregate data to the state but don’t break claims out by industry. But the Colorado Department of Labor has some clue. The agency tracks payments to injured employees who miss work because of an on-the-job injury. But if the injured employee recovers without missing any work, the Labor Department doesn’t track the injury.

That number of claims by affected construction workers declined 5.6 percent to 1,426 claims between 2016 and 2017, according to the state Labor Department.  However, Tauriello said the numbers are only an indication that fewer construction workers are getting injured. Not everyone who files a claim specifies what industry they work in. In 2017, about 45 percent left the “occupation” spot blank.

But Tauriello said the insurance industry also has cracked down, forcing employers to “pay through the roof” unless they have skilled workers and subcontractors and training programs.

“This has been a point of controversy,” he added. “Some employers feel this has gone too far, where the insurance industry has created a monster where statistically, you have to be really close to perfect in order to get hired on a construction project.”

There is one injury stat Colorado does track. The number of construction workers who died on the job in 2017 jumped 58 percent from the prior year, to 19 deaths. That compares with 12 deaths in 2016, and 22 in both 2012 and 2015.

Those numbers also have some nuances, said Roberta Smith, the state’s Occupational Health Program Manager at the Department of Public Health & Environment. Even if OSHA doesn’t investigate deaths linked to a heart attack or an off-site car accident, the deaths still are counted in the fatality rate.  

“There’s a lot more behind a number, but this does help raise awareness because unfortunately, we still have people dying on the job,” Smith said. “The best we can do is make sure everyone has adequate training and is receiving training on a regular basis.”

Pinnacol has seen a single-digit increase in injured construction worker claims in recent years. But claims by Hispanic or Latino construction workers dropped 20 percent in two years, down by 378 claims to 1,504. Pinnacol credits the increase in training Spanish speakers. And it’s good business for the company, which paid out its fourth consecutive dividend to policyholders last year.

“The increase in construction claims may be due in part to the increased volume of construction projects and workers needed to complete those projects,” pointed out Sean Elliott, Pinnacol’s associate vice president of insurance operations. “With a growing Spanish-speaking workforce in our construction industry, you would also expect claims for these workers to increase, but we’ve not seen that. It’s clear employers are doing more to help prevent occupational injuries for these workers, and we hope to see this trend continue.”

During his fall-protection training at Haselden Construction, Delgado received new safety gear and went through the steps of securing himself multiple ways to the scaffolding.

He said through a translator that even though he had no training, he never feared working on a roof. He’s young, 26. And doesn’t have a family to support. But he said he was glad to be getting the training. Back in Panama, he was “in electrical,” translator Teodulo “Teo” Galarza, a general foreman at Haselden, said. And Delgado’s training for that?

“No, he never got training for anything,” Galarza said. “He’s excited for everybody to get training.”

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