Hispanic Group Says NC Not Protecting Industry Workers

Mon June 21, 2004 - Southeast Edition

RALEIGH, NC (AP) The state isn’t doing enough to protect Hispanic construction workers, leading to a rash of injuries and deaths among a fast-growing population in North Carolina, an advocacy group charges.

While Hispanics account for approximately 5 percent of the North Carolina population, they hold many of the state’s construction jobs.

“It’s a growing community and very much a part of industries that are very dangerous,” Andrea Bazan-Manson, executive director of the advocacy group El Pueblo, told the House Finance Committee in early June. “This is an epidemic, we believe.”

El Pueblo is pushing two bills aimed at improving workplace safety, primarily at construction sites.

“We’ve had a very sharp uptick in the number of workplace deaths and injuries in the Hispanic community in recent months,” said Rep. Wayne Goodwin, D-Randolph, primary sponsor of these and related bills aimed at workplace safety. Goodwin is also a candidate for state labor commissioner.

Of the 44 construction workers who died in 2002, the most recent year for which official figures are available, state officials estimate that 12 were Hispanic, said Juan Santos, spokesman for the state Department of Labor. Hispanics accounted for four of 20 construction fatalities that occurred between October 2003 and May 2004, according to an unofficial state count.

Another five workers have been injured in Wake and Johnston counties in the last three months, according to El Pueblo.

While the figures are “unfortunate,” they aren’t surprising given that Hispanics do much of the construction work in the state, Santos said.

State officials said most workplace deaths among all North Carolinians are the result of inadequate training. The state already requires employers to provide clear instruction on worker safety to those who don’t speak English.

“Whatever safety training that has to be provided has to be provided in the language an employee can understand,’ Santos said.

The Department of Labor also provides a crew that travels to work sites to provide safety lessons in English and Spanish, and has hired bilingual workers, Santos said.

But El Pueblo believes more needs to be done, including stronger measures to overcome a language barrier that often makes safety instructions useless.

A bill now pending before the Legislature and filed by Goodwin and 13 Democratic co-sponsors would authorize the Labor Department to spend $100,000 in fiscal 2004-05 on a pilot program to help workers who don’t speak English. The monthly, three-hour classes would be offered at community colleges in the counties that had the highest number of deaths among Hispanic construction workers last year.

Construction companies with at least three-quarters of their Spanish-speaking workers participating in the classes would face reduced fines if they are penalized by the state after a worker is injured on the job. That benefit would be in effect for three years and only apply if the injury was not caused by “reckless or intentional misconduct.”

A bill introduced in the House and Senate last year would offer tax credits to employers in good standing with the state who voluntarily invest in making their workplaces safer than required. The House version, also sponsored by Goodwin, would cost the state an estimated $1 million in lost tax revenue in each of the next two years.

“This gives the extra incentive to go ahead and get that next generation of safety equipment,” Goodwin told the House Finance Committee last week. He said the bill would save money in the long run by reducing workers compensation claims, among other costs.

Several lawmakers asked to have the bill amended after raising concerns that it might encourage employer fraud.

A companion Senate bill was filed in 2003 by Sen. David Hoyle, D-Gaston, but has seen “no movement,” Goodwin said.

The state a few years ago examined ways to help Hispanics in the workplace.

A panel established shortly after Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry took office in 2001 delved into workplace obstacles encountered by the state’s Hispanic population, Santos said.

Language was one impediment. The other was culture.

“Some Hispanics are less likely to place the same priority on workplace safety as someone who’s been trained in workplace safety,” Santos said.

Bazan-Manson dismissed that conclusion as a “shortsighted barrier” to improving safety.

“I would say workers would follow procedure,” she said.

El Pueblo said workers also can play a role in improving safety by learning English. Churches, civic groups and colleges offer classes, but few workers have the energy after a 10-hour day on the job site, Bazan-Manson said.

“It takes a long time to learn English,” she said.

Current efforts to keep Hispanic workers safe are not sufficient, Bazan-Manson said.

“It’s not working the way it needs to work from our perspective, because our workers continue to be hurt on the job,” she said

“I think all of these pieces of legislation are very important altogether. Not one of them would solve the problem …. but they would do a lot to decrease their deaths in the workplace.”