Had he received training in his native language, Rigoberto Valenzuela Morales might not have suffocated under four tons of mud in a Loop 101 trench cave-in.
A burst water pipe five years ago in Scottsdale turned the construction trench into an avalanche of mud that killed the 23-year-old Mexican citizen who lived in Mesa. It also buried another man to his neck and a third to his chest.
While the trench was not shored properly, inadequate safety training also played a part in the death, said Darin Perkins, Arizona Department of Occupational Safety and Health program director.
"In that case and in so many others, if the employees had received training in the language that they understand, then they would, at the very least, not only know some of the basic requirements, but, more importantly, they would be able to recognize when things weren’t right and hopefully act on that knowledge and ask some questions or get themselves out of a dangerous situation."
Efforts are under way to increase the use of Spanish safety manuals and to conduct weekly safety talks in Spanish to help protect Spanishspeaking workers.
"It’s one of these things you have to be at the beginning of the wave before it gets worse and now is the time to try to make those changes," said Julie Pace, a Mesa resident and partner at Stinson Morrison Hecker in Phoenix, where she also leads the firm’s national employment law practice.
Job injury rates for Hispanic workers are significantly higher than the national average, Pace said.
Citing data from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Pace said Hispanics comprise 10.7 percent of the U.S. work force, but they experience 13.8 percent of fatal workplace in- juries. Furthermore, she said, in the past year the construction industry has achieved a 9 percent decrease in fatalities, but the fatality rate for Hispanic construction workers has increased by 11 percent, according to OSHA statistics.
Pace recently addressed the National Association of Homebuilders International Builders Show, which is attended by 90,000 industry professionals. An attorney who represents Valley homebuilders, Pace says construction contractors, particularly in residential and commercial work, need to implement safety training in Spanish for their employees and realize the construction work force is becoming heavily Hispanic.
Workers from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, many of whom can barely read or are illiterate, are the fastest growing segment of construction workers throughout the United States, officials say.
Employers need to be aware of the cultural differences that make implementing safety training difficult, Pace said. Many foreign-born workers who come to the United States to work are not trained in job-site safety. Spanish-speaking workers often require an explanation of safety rules before they comply, she said.
American safety standards typically are more stringent than the standards in the countries where workers came from, she said. They may be accustomed to lax standards around the job site, she said.
As an example, workers from Mexico and Central America apparently do not like wearing hard hats, Pace said. Literacy is also a serious problem because many of these immigrant workers are unable to read English and some cannot read Spanish very well. Employers should assume that many Spanishspeaking workers are unable to fully comprehend safety policies in either language, she said.
"We try to encourage employers to overcome illiteracy by using diagrams, colorcoded items and videos to denote safety hazards," Pace said.
Ezequiel Marichalar, a Hispanic who has worked in construction for 20 years, said safety training was a problem at the beginning of his career, but it has improved, particularly under his latest employer, Schuck and Sons Construction Co.
Marichalar, whose first language is English, translates safety meetings to the Spanish-speaking men who work on his crew.
"Some of these guys don’t realize the importance of the classes and things the company provides because the culture is a little different," he said, adding safety is a new concept for many workers who may not understand the need for it."
Over the years, Marichalar said he has seen injuries to Spanish speakers because they didn’t know about safety directives.
"I have seen saw cuts," he said. "I haven’t seen major accidents, but I’ve seen cuts and one time I saw a guy lose a finger because of doing things not safely."
All the injuries he’s witnessed were outside of Schuck and Sons, Marichalar said.
Craig Steele, Schuck and Sons president and CEO, said all of his company’s training materials written in English have been converted to Spanish. In addition, weekly safety meetings held in the field are in English and Spanish.
"We treat our Hispanic workers and do their training the same way we do all of our workers," he said. "The difference is we have to do it their native language. We’ve got several people on our staff who speak Spanish, our human resources manager is bilingual."
The company, which is building homes in Queen Creek and at a Power Ranch in Gilbert, is a carpentry subcontractor with 1,300 employees. It also operates a truss plant and lumber yard where more than half the employees are Spanish speaking.
"We’re self-insured on our workers compensation insurance, so there’s definitely a moral obligation as well as a financial incentive to keep the workers safe," Steele said.
While medium to large size companies like his are doing a better job of training Spanish speakers, Steele says smaller outfits likely still need help.
The Homebuilders Association of Central Arizona is tackling the issue by printing free safety materials in Spanish. The 800-member organization paid to interpret the OHSA job site safety handbook, a small field book with pictures.
The organization also interpreted its national book on "tool box" talks, weekly safety meetings held when crews get paid. The group hopes to be a national pilot program for OSHA.