Why Accidents Happen/Speed versus Safety
Participants were presented with the fact of Hispanic construction workers' greater risk of falls and deaths on construction sites. They shared their perspective of the reasons for that disparate risk - primarily that Hispanic workers are under greater pressure to work fast, often to assure supervisors' bonuses for jobs completed early. They also felt that they have less recourse to protest and change dangerous conditions than non-Hispanic workers. They perceived "Americans," by which we assume they mean non-Hispanic United States-born workers, to have more knowledge of their rights, and more freedom to "work according to the hours," which we interpret to mean to work only the required hours at a pace dictated by the work. They did not universally blame contractors and supervisors for the increased risk. They took responsibility for "going along" or not taking precautions to protect themselves. Several sections presented below reflect the nuances of this key result.
Interviewer: The problem is that in Massachusetts falls are increasing among Hispanics and Brazilians.
Worker 1: You know why? Because of the pressure to work fast.
Worker 2: The harassment at work.
Worker 1: Doing the work faster, competing with others, and you don't care for yourself.
Worker 1: Americans have eight hours to complete a job, and what they do in eight hours Hispanic workers do in two and a half hours faster.
Worker 2: But when they're pressuring you to do the work...because if they don't pressure you, then you do the work right and at your pace.
Worker 1: If it's an eight hour job that's what you have. Eight hours to leave clean, complete and without injuries.
I know how to prevent falls. The best way to prevent falls, I'm going to explain to you [from] a case that I lived. So that there is no more falls is easy; but the point is how to get there. First of all, supervisors get bonuses, you understand? They get bonuses to finish the job faster. If the job is for two months, they'll finish it in one and a half. That is an offer for the supervisor. Naturally there will be pressure to finish the job, because the supervisor has that in his mind. Then he starts pressuring to work faster, and working faster means being less safe.
Equipment and Personal Protective Equipment
Workers mentioned examples of where they found themselves (or co-workers) in dangerous situations because of not having the right ladder, or other appropriate equipment to work at heights.
Sometimes you have to do a job where the ladder doesn't reach and you have to put a piece of wood or a pole and go up there uncomfortable, and you could fall too.
They also described cases where they were given inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE) (such as dust masks instead of half-face respirators) or no equipment and using cloths to prevent breathing in dust. In contrast, some cited instances where supervisors were very concerned about PPE use, and even one case where a worker was fired for not using required PPE. Some workers described being required to provide their own PPE.
Language and Literacy Issues
The inability to understand spoken English was not strongly articulated as a significant factor in construction safety by participants. Some workers raised the issue of inability to read signs - in Spanish -- as a potential problem.
Interviewer: How do you communicate when you're learning to perform new tasks? Is it in Spanish or English?
No in Spanish.
There is always a foreman that speaks Spanish if you don't understand English that can explain how to do things.
Serves as interpreter.
: Yes normally through the foreman, like he said, he explains and translates if necessary.
And all the jobs you have done are like that in the Boston area?
Everywhere is the same, because the ones that don't know -- others help him until he gets use to it.
I have noticed that a lot of people in this line of work don't even know how to read. That is a big problem, too. There are signs in Spanish, and they go in anyways because they can't read what the sign says, and that is a big problem and that causes lots of accidents.
Several comments reflected workers' cynicism about safety training, although at times, they also valued good training. Some felt that required training that they did receive was not helpful, either because it repeated concepts that they knew from working on the job, or was not relevant to actual safety risks, such as receiving first aid training when they were working with asbestos, or was difficult to apply on site, such as tying off when working on a ladder. They mentioned that they had known of cases where workers had bought the OSHA 10-hour safety training certificates that are required for work on public projects, but that there had been some greater scrutiny of that practice following the prosecution of a local fraudulent trainer. Tool box talks were mentioned, as well as forms that they had signed saying that they had been trained.
: Look, training is favorable, but no one is going to take 30 minutes to an hour to show you anything when all they want is to get the job done fast.
Yes, because they're not going to pay you to take a course on that. A lot of workers say "I don't need training. I just came to work to earn a living"
I think that the OSHA has a great message. When I took the course they had a projector and they showed how everything was -- people climbing ladders that were the wrong size, people on scaffolds without harness. You know, they show you a lot of things.
Responsibility for Safety
Participants spoke about how contractors' responsibility for a safe worksite is delegated to site personnel, and about their perspectives on workers' own responsibility for safety. Supervisors, union stewards, internal and consultant safety personnel, and the workers themselves, were identified as the people with responsibility for safety. Supervisors were identified as the site personnel with the greatest responsibility for the safety of the workers on the job. Workers spoke of being responsible for buying and maintaining their own safety equipment, of looking out for co-workers and hazards, and of their own and others' "negligence" as a cause of accidents. They also raised the issue of how the company's responsibility for safety is compromised by production pressures or undermined by contrary behavior by supervisors.
I think that everyone has to take care of themselves, my glasses, my helmet, and my gloves. Sometimes I've seen laborers talking to the foreman because he doesn't have safety equipment, then the example starts at home. How do you expect the workers to protect themselves?
The good thing is that between the workers you have to take care, you know? So you could be aware of not falling.
The supervisor should inspect the work before sending the worker. He is supposed to inspect and make sure everything is safe.
OSHA was at times described as having limited influence on a company's safety standards, and in other cases as having a significant influence on companies following an OSHA inspection and fine. Additionally, one worker saw that the contractor requirement (driven by state requirements, not federal OSHA as the worker believes) that workers have a 10-hour OSHA training card also supported workers in taking responsibility for safety.
OSHA requires every worker to have the card. If you don't have the card, then you're not accepted at work. OSHA designed that card so that you are conscious of what you're doing.
Temporary employment agencies were identified by workers as being both an important source of potential employment, and a source of potentially hazardous employment, and a means by which the contractor can avoid responsibility for safety.
I think that agencies are the skirt for the contractors. A contractor would rather call the agency to hire you, because that way they pay less and don't have the responsibility in case you get hurt.
As seen from the sections above, focus group participants identified supervisors as playing a critical role in setting the expectations for safety on sites. In some cases, workers reported not even knowing who their employer was, only the supervisor. Workers spoke repeatedly of the negative impact on safety and the social environment resulting from supervisors' pressure on workers. They believed this pressure was motivated by opportunities for bonuses to supervisors who finished jobs under scheduled time. In some cases, participants spoke positively of the supervision that they had experienced and made note of some supervisors' attention to safety.
Worker 1: There is no defense for supervisors.
Worker 2: From a thousand, one that does things the way they should.
Worker 1: They don't care because they're interested in being the supervisor, and he works for the company, and the work is for two months, but he wants to do it in a month and a half so he can get a bonus and the worker -- who cares?[...] There are dangerous supervisors that think we are slaves. Sometimes they come and stand right behind you like a soldier when you're working.
Worker 2: They intimidate you.
Interviewer: If you could think of the ideal supervisor, what characteristics should this person have?
Worker 1: To be humane is the first thing. To be at the same level as the employee even though he has a higher rank. To acknowledge that the worker is a person just like him.
I worked once with a supervisor that was more conscientious. For example we would get together before starting the job and he would throw his speech. Before finishing he would make us line up and would take a good look at us, and who ever didn't have the correct boots he would say: you work today but if tomorrow you don't have the right boots, you better stay home.
Many workers said that they preferred working for "American" supervisors because what they perceive of as a perverse incentive for Hispanic supervisors to push workers in order to prove themselves.
That happens with the Hispanic supervisor that wants to be authoritarian -- to look good in front of the American that is coming behind him. So then what happens is that he over does it to look good. He pressures you. He wants to ensure a position there.
That's why I work with American supervisors. I'm convinced that American supervisors treat you better. They tell you, your safety is more important. You know? 'Take your time and do that the way it's supposed to be done.'
Respect for Workers
The theme of the need for more respect for workers arose repeatedly among participants. This particular element of the social environment was deemed to be critical to improved safety and trust between supervisors and workers.
...that the workers can be seen as humans and not just as laborers [...] The boss, many times, is only looking at a person working, but doesn't give importance [to the worker] as a human being. Sometimes we're treated like dogs. Like animals. Then you feel resentment towards that person, and you don't want to share with them because they mistreat you. But if there is a little bit of consideration and trust then I will feel encouraged to share with them. But if you invite me, and treat me like an animal, I will never feel like even talking to you.
Worker 1: The problem is that the worker is so important and [yet] not important. He can do everything, but if employers don't like you, they never need you.
Worker 2: No one is indispensable at work.
Worker 3: Exactly. So no one is indispensable. You can be good or not, because you can leave and another one will come and do the job.
Worker 1: A supervisor where I'm working insulted me, and I had to confront him. I said not to treat me like a child, that under the suit and pants there was a man, and he said you're going to listen 'I'm your boss,' and I said, 'yes, you're my boss and I'm your employee.'
Worker 1: They treat you with wickedness.
Worker 2: Yes, the ones that receive bonuses if they finish the job earlier. When that happens [...] they abuse the employees.
Worker 3: They abuse us so much.
Participants described an atmosphere of intimidation that prevented workers from speaking up about safety. They feared retaliation, most often in the form of getting fired or not offered future work, if they complained about a ladder or unsafe working conditions. They also pointed out that the ready availability of other workers to take their place created competition that resulted in workers taking safety risks such as doing hazardous work without training (e.g. assembling a scaffold). One worker described working with an injured hand for three days because a supervisor told him that he would lay him off and get another to replace him if he didn't want to work.
Worker 1: The worker is bad, too, because if he comes down, the other comes.
Worker 2: 'This one gets a ladder and goes up like nothing and this one is a softy.'
Worker 3: 'Look I have a guy, I'll bring him tomorrow.'
Worker 4: When you're leaving they say 'don't come tomorrow. We're reducing personnel.'
I was working at [a site in Boston] and a truck arrived with the scaffold assembly. Guys get it down then the supervisor asked another Hispanic supervisor: 'Listen, where is the scaffold? Take a couple of guys.' I haven't ever assembled that, but if they order me to do it, I have to do it, because otherwise they send me home.
If you express yourself they make you work with all the trash, and without protection, you understand?
Worker 1: Many times they're at work and no one says anything -- that's the problem -- that no one complains, and if no one complains, the problem will always be there.
Interviewer: And why you think no one complains?
Worker 1: Because they're afraid they may be fired.
Worker 2: You leave and another comes.
Need for the Job
Participants repeatedly mentioned that Latino construction workers' need for the job - the necessity of paying work - as a causal factor in tolerating unsafe conditions. Only a few of the workers described having fulltime, year-round work. Many spoke of having only a few months of work a year. However, some workers saw also saw the need to refuse or resist the pull of "la necesidad."
At that moment, you're not thinking that you're risking your life. You are thinking that you have the necessity. Because of the necessity, you don't think that you can break a leg, but that you have to continue working.
Worker 1: The problem is that you know they're paying you, and because of the necessity you follow orders.
Worker 2: Yes, but sometimes the laborer has to speak up. Because sometimes they make you work in conditions that are not acceptable.
Worker 1: That depends on the person because if you have the necessity, you don't care.
Worker 3: Yes, because if you complain, they tell you right away don't come tomorrow, we'll call you and then, you have no job.
Worker 2: I understand but you have to have opposition.
Following an injury, one worker described his position:
I said to the guy, 'listen, I hurt my hand.' 'I'm sorry,' - this is the foreman, this is the supervisor, 'this job needs to be finished. If you don't want to finish, don't come tomorrow, and then we will call the union and have them send us another guy.' I didn't go to my house because I have three kids and my wife, and when you find work you have to take advantage of it. This doesn't happen all the time; I suffer three days with a white man, taking orders. My hand was bad. I went to the hospital. They told me I needed a specialist.
As described above, many workers felt that their only option in opposing unsafe conditions was to leave a job. A few workers' comments described a positive safety culture at some companies, however more often the "rules" discouraged participation by workers to improve conditions. There was discussion of the union, OSHA and rights protecting workers, but some workers felt that the point of opposition should be at the worksite, and that workers should not tolerate unsafe conditions.
Worker 1: If the person goes to the steward and reports what happened, and a report is done with the problems, and sent to the federal office where they're supposed to go, maybe this wouldn't happen. But no one reports it. Everyone complains, but does nothing. Because of the fear of losing the job.
Interviewer: And that is more common with Hispanic construction workers than non-Hispanics?
Worker 1: More with Hispanics. For Americans, that doesn't exist, because they know their rights. The majority of Hispanics don't know their rights. And even if they know their rights, they still don't complain, I'm telling you.
I would like to be a spokesman and help because I know there is a lot of injustice, even if I lose my job. I'm not living a bad life, nor am I living a rich life, but I can live without this job. Obvious I need it too. Work is work and you need the money, but I would like to be a spokesman if needed.