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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Immigrants Risk Safety in Workplaces

NEW YORK -- Last summer, as a worker welded steel beams in a church in Aurora, Colorado, falling sparks ignited wooden trusses below. Another worker, seeing the flames and smoke, yelled a warning, but the welder did not understand a word.

He spoke Spanish and his co-worker spoke Russian. So the fire spread, causing several hundred thousand dollars in damages. "If someone could've communicated there, there would've been less damage, and they could have stopped the spread of the fire," said Terry Kish, director of human resources services for the Colorado Contractors Association in Englewood.

As more immigrants pour into the United States, more workplaces are resounding with the sound of foreign tongues. Keeping the lines of communication open among linguistic groups is important in any work setting, of course, but nowhere is it more critical than in the construction trade, where misunderstandings can cost lives f or set in motion million-dollar mistakes.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration cites the example of a demolition worker who was killed last year when he was struck by the boom of the machine he was operating while demolishing a Manhattan office building. He left the machine while it was running and inadvertently pressed the boom control pedal. The safety instruction book was written in English; the worker understood only Polish.

A second example was a Mexican laborer who was power-washing a building wall in 1996 and was killed when the lift he was in toppled 10 meters to the ground in Rockefeller Center because it was not set up properly. None of the safety warnings that would have prevented the accident were written in Spanish.

In New York City, a magnet for immigrants from all over the world, some work sites are reminiscent of the biblical Tower of Babel. But even though OSHA requires that a Material Safety Data Sheet for every chemical substance in the workplace be available to the workers exposed to it so that they will be familiar with the hazards and precautions to take, very few are available in any language other than English.

Workers at many sites in Manhattan can get by in either Spanish or English, according to Walter Suarez, 28, a Spanish-speaking laborer at the Fischer Mills Building on Greenwich Street in downtown Manhattan, where workers were recently pouring concrete floors for new apartments. But, Suarez said through an interpreter, if you speak only Croatian or Chinese, "then you have a problem; like if we scream to stop the pump, and they don't hear or understand, over and over."

Language barriers on the job are an even bigger problem among day laborers, nonunionized workers who are less likely to speak English, Fernandes added.

If English is not a common tongue, a second line of defense is to have an interpreter on hand, construction veterans say. Failing that, said Jim Pakenham, safety director for Bovis Lend Lease, a large national construction company, in emergency situations, "You use sign language."

Even so, many foreign-born workers are unaware of safety hazards and their right to safe working conditions. Fearful over their job security or possibly tenuous immigration status, they are less likely to complain and more likely to be in danger, worker advocates said.

One of the largest threats to the safety of non-English-speaking employees is their failure to report hazards, said Laurie Kellogg, training representative for the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees. "There's fear of talking to the boss, and the complete lack of awareness that there are safety rules," she said. "Then you'll have people doing dangerous things because their supervisor told them to."

Particularly in the garment trades, people who are not fluent in English can suffer unnecessarily from repetitive stress injuries. Most workers blame such problems on old age or arthritis, when in many cases the problem is work-related. Workers who do not understand that are unable to collect workers compensation, Kellogg said.

OSHA faces language barriers as well, in the course of regular inspections and investigating violations at building sites, said Robert Kulick, area director for the agency's Manhattan office.

"It's critical that we talk to employees to establish what the conditions are at the work site," he said. "It's a problem for us if they speak one version of a Chinese dialect, or Portuguese, and translators aren't available."