Training: Language Alone Is Not Enough

I live on one of those old-time Southern California streets where developers planted trees in the parkway, the strip of ground between the sidewalk and the street. Over the years, I have been repeatedly warned by gardeners not to touch the tree in my stretch of the parkway. Now a 15-foot-high, very well-filled out specimen shades my front yard. My assumption (and apparently theirs) was that the tree belonged to the county, which was responsible for trimming and other such maintenance.

During the three decades the trees have been in place, many of them have thrown out roots that have disrupted the vegetation people have planted in the parkway and have displaced, cracked, or pushed up the sidewalks. Those of us who use the sidewalks are used to the ups and downs of the aging concrete as we walk our dogs or push kids in strollers. So it took us by surprise when we received a letter from the county informing us that the tipped sidewalks and wandering tree roots were a menace to public health and safety, and it was the responsibility of us homeowners to do something about it.

Not to worry, however. The county had a plan. It had contracted with a construction firm to take down the offending trees and replace the sidewalks. All we had to do was ante up for it. To avoid the anticipated blowback, the county offered us the option of hiring our own arborist or concrete contractor, as long as the work was done to the specifications included in the letter.

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Soon enough, a little man in a gray hat and county uniform began appearing in the neighborhood, measuring the lift on the roller-coaster segments of the sidewalk and spraying white blobs and blotches here and there, presumably to identify which segments had to be replaced. The first homeowner-engaged contractor appeared about five houses down. The panel on his truck said he belonged to some construction firm or another, but he arrived alone and worked unaided. I walked over the first day and inquired if what he was doing was part of the county plan and would he be doing the rest of the street—and would he be taking the tree down that had pushed the sidewalk in front of my neighbor’s house cattywampus. He nodded “yes” to my first questions and “no” to the third. By the end of the first day, broken up chunks of concrete were lying on my neighbor’s lawn, and the man was hard at work with a pickaxe hacking away at the tree roots. He continued to work like that, by himself without the benefit of hard hat or other safety equipment, for two days. As far as I could see, no one showed up to supervise or offer counsel.

I stopped by again the second day. “Hard work,” I said. He looked up, sweat dripping off his forehead, and nodded. The look he gave me said, “hard work and frustrating.” I saw the mess he was making with the roots and pitied the poor tree. The third day a mini Bobcat excavator showed up—although I never saw the operator—and eventually the space where the sidewalk had been was clear and level enough to receive the county-specified concrete.

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A week later, the county-contracted construction company arrived on the scene. A full-size backhoe with a jackhammer attachment began working its way down the street, followed by two debris trucks and a concrete cutter machine to smooth out any edges left over from the jackhammer. I had already established that my tree was not one scheduled to come down or have its roots shaved, but I went out to keep an eye on the backhoe when it showed up in front of my house. An assistant on foot followed the backhoe and helped direct the operator to the sections of the sidewalk that had to be removed and the best way to get at them without damaging my property. The whole crew, including the men driving the trucks, who also had assistants walking alongside, were wearing safety helmets and vests.

I asked the backhoe operator’s assistant if I could have a couple of the bigger slabs to add to my patio in the backyard. He communicated my request to the operator, and I watched wide-eyed as the man neatly nudged the first of several slabs up at an angle with the tip of the jackhammer, positioned the attachment under the slab and moved it, perfectly balanced, without a wiggle or a bounce, off to the side of my driveway. He did this three times. “Pretty good,” I said. The assistant, who was standing next to me, nodded. “He’s one of our best operators.”

“I sure would like to talk to him about where he got his training.” The assistant, who like the operator was Hispanic, said, “He doesn’t speak English.” The communication between the two of them (the assistant spoke perfect, unaccented English) was so fluid, the mutual respect expressed between them so evident, their work so efficient, that I was taken aback. I thought of the lone worker who had spent two days alone breaking up concrete down the street and whacking at tree roots with a pickaxe.

According to The Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR) and Labor Occupational Health Program at the University of California at Berkeley, the number of Hispanic workers in construction doubled in this country from 1990 to 2000, from 700,000 to 1.5 million. By 2007, these figures had doubled again. Although the numbers dropped with the recession, Hispanics still make up approximately 30% of our construction workers, and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that Hispanic employment in the construction industry will grow 2.9% annually by 2020.

Among other distinctions, Hispanics have the highest injury rates in construction, and according to CPWR, Hispanic and other foreign-born construction workers are more frequently killed on the job than their Anglo counterparts. (The US Office of Management and Budget defines “Hispanic” or “Latino” as a person of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race.)

The key words in the above definition are culture and origin. Researchers who have taken to studying these things suggest that lack of English language proficiency, although often thought of as fundamental to the problem, is in itself not the exclusive culprit in the communication gap between non-English speaking workers and their English-speaking management that accounts for the high injury rate among Hispanic construction workers. Rather, heritage and culture and the in-country work experience Hispanic workers bring to the job play a critically significant role. These, in turn, impact the Hispanic work ethic, including an acceptance of unsafe working conditions, a tradition of working alone or unsupervised, and a lack of appreciation for safety and health training, including personal protective equipment.

One respondent to a survey on the subject also described what he called the “sissy factor”—that Hispanic workers have a tendency to ignore safety issues and refrain from reporting hazards or abuses because it makes them appear less manly.

Participants in a 2009 focus group that included 75 Hispanic construction workers in Massachusetts expressed criticism about the safety training they received in this country. Specifically that the training wasn’t appropriate to the job or repeated concepts they had already learned on the job, or because it wasn’t relevant to the safety risks they were encountering or was difficult to apply on site (such as tying off when working on a ladder).

A number of organizations have been developing programs to address these issues, including construction companies themselves, although not always with stellar success. A 2012 study conducted by the Purdue Building Construction Management Division suggests that company-sponsored training often was ineffective in reducing the incidence of employee injuries. A per-company incidence rate and training score were calculated based on the results of a survey that recorded demographics, recordable injuries and illnesses, total employee hours worked, and Hispanic-oriented safety training. When the scores didn’t show a significant correlation with the accident incidence rate, researchers concluded that companies’ Hispanic-oriented training was not having an impact on injuries among this segment of their employees.

A study conducted at Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, GA, suggests that training by itself, without an appropriate understanding of the cultural differences that define Hispanic workers’ approach to the job, lacks effectiveness in reducing worker injuries. The project verified conclusions of other researchers that trainers must “fully understand” Hispanic cultural issues and use that knowledge to help motivate Hispanic workers in embracing a safety culture.

Among the predictable cultural markers, the researchers identified the importance of family, the aforementioned machismo, and the trustworthiness of those in authority. Instead of trying to convince Hispanic employees to be safe for their own protection, construction companies would be better served by the example of the training director who tied employees’ potential for an injury to their inability to provide for their families. The company also conducted an annual party that included workers’ wives and children. While the event provided activities for the kids, there was also an emphasis on promoting worker safety. The organizers concluded that associating kids and their families with safety messages helps drive the safety message home.

Another trainer, frustrated that the argument he had been using with the company’s English-speaking employees about the dangers of injuries or death from falls wasn’t getting through to his Hispanic workforce, pulled out the family argument, laying out the problems workers’ wives would face if their spouse was injured and could no longer provide for them.

The researchers also determined that Hispanic workers have difficulties with accepting the good intentions of their employers. Experience with corruption in their home country government and other official organizations leads to suspicion of authority figures of any kind. Employers who addressed this fear and convinced their employees of their good intentions and motives in their regard saw significant reductions in injuries and fatalities among their Hispanic workers.

Although safety is the larger issue here, there is also the challenge of crew interaction and assembling a workforce that works together efficiently. The next day, after the concrete in front of my house had been removed, the crew with the stellar backhoe operator had moved on to the street above me and another backhoe crew showed up to shave the tree roots and prepare the space for the new sidewalks. Eventually, a third group came by to pour the concrete. I sat down on the curb and talked with one crew while they were eating lunch. Again it was a mixed group of Anglos and Hispanics and again they were working together seamlessly. A lot of work they were doing was difficult, breaking up and removing 30-year-old tree roots, but the talk wasn’t of complaints or irritation, but how this was the most critical part of the job and had to be done correctly or the rest of work would be for naught.

Safety, I thought. Communication and efficiency. Not to mention a much healthier bottom line.