- The Washington Times - Monday, September 11, 2000

A few months ago, Clay Lange, a foreman at MKB Construction, was gesturing with his hands to communicate to his Spanish-speaking workers that a break was over.

After graduating last week from a 12-week Spanish course, Mr. Lange now can simply ask them: "Estas listo para trabajar?" to see if they're ready.

As more immigrants pour into the work force, communication has become a critical diversity issue in the construction industry, where a misunderstanding can cost money and even lives.

"We realized we had a problem," said John Dusch, safety director at MKB in Phoenix. "The fact that we were not able to communicate with our employees was affecting our productivity and, most importantly, our safety records."

Mr. Dusch said that about 30 percent of his 250 employees do not speak English and 80 percent of those workers are of Hispanic origin, similar to percentages for the 160,000-person industry in the state.

The hiring of foreign-born workers is only expected to grow in coming years because of the U.S. labor shortage. The Hispanic work force nationwide is projected to increase 37 percent, to more than 19 million by 2008, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"With the labor shortage, we see contractors having to scramble for any workers," said Darin Perkins, director of the state office for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. "And those non-English-speaking ones are the most willing to work."

Still, it was only recently that the industry awoke to the language barriers between English and Spanish-speaking workers.

Last year, Rigoberto Morales, 23, a Mexican national, died after he was buried alive in a 20-foot-deep ditch on a project in Scottsdale. Two other Hispanic workers were injured.

OSHA fined Agate Construction Co., Mr. Morales' employer, a record $355,250 for safety violations, including $70,000 for failing to provide training to the employees. Agate denied any wrongdoing.

In a written statement filed with OSHA, Mr. Morales' brother, Clemente, who worked at the site, said through an interpreter, "He [Clemente] feels that if his brother had been trained in excavation safety, then maybe this would have not happened."

After the Morales accident, some construction companies either started hiring an interpreter or, in the case of MKB, decided to offer language training.

"It's something we should've been doing five years ago," said Linda Tweten, executive director of the American Subcontractors Association of Arizona.

"The Hispanic culture has been a significant one in Arizona for a long time now, and I think the industry has failed to recognize they are an extremely important part of the work force."

Last year, construction fatalities nationwide accounted for 1,200 occupational deaths, 20 percent of the total.

A 1997 study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that nearly 700, or about 10 percent of all workers killed on the job, were born in other countries. Mexico was the native country of 31 percent of those fatally injured.

MKB has sent six foremen and superintendents to its first 12-week language class, provided by Lingo Communications of Phoenix, and a new group of 12 is expected to start training soon. The company is also planning an English class for its Spanish-speaking workers.

Mr. Dusch, of MKB, said that after the first class, the incident rate on job sites had fallen from a few a month to one or even none.

"It's a whole different culture out there in Mexico," he said. "There is no OSHA there. People who come here don't know we have regulations. They don't realize there are things they cannot do.

"It's not the people; it's just they've lived in a different world, where they would take all the chances to finish a job."

The ability to communicate is appreciated on the job sites.

"Before, there were a lot of instances when the workers would not understand what to do," said Frank Martinez, an MKB foreman who speaks both English and Spanish. "They would either come to me or did what they thought they needed to do. Now they know exactly what to do."

Mr. Lange, one of the foremen who took the Spanish class, now carries with him a binder with the 50 phrases he needs to know and other terms that help him in his plastering job.

His Spanish-speaking workers correct his accent during lunch breaks, and they can talk about things other than work.

And when the site superintendent approaches, he can warn them: "el grande patron."

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