A Perfect Storm: Young Hispanic Workers at Small Construction Firms at More Risk

Young Hispanic immigrants working for small construction firms are at serious risk for adverse, work-related health outcomes according to the American Society of Safety Engineers and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
By Marla McIntyre
March 18, 2020

Three populations are at increased risk for adverse work-related health outcomes—Hispanic immigrants, small businesses with fewer than 20 employees and workers 25 years and younger. Overlapping Vulnerabilities: The Occupational Health and Safety of Young Immigrant Workers in Small Construction Firms, by the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), show how the vulnerabilities create a perfect storm for individuals belonging to all three groups.

Hispanic Immigrant Workers in Construction

In 2013, Hispanic immigrants made up 20% of the construction workforce in the U.S. while 75% of all Hispanics working in construction were immigrants.

The number of cases of nonfatal injury or illness among Hispanic construction workers nearly doubled from 1992 to 2006. From 2003 to 2008, Hispanic ironworkers, roofers and laborers had the highest fatality rate.

Workplace safety training is critical. However, immigrant workers frequently receive poor-quality or no safety training. Language differences and cultural factors, such as how immigrants understand and approach work, safety, risk and their relationship with their coworkers and employers are barriers to effective safety training. A study of Hispanic immigrant workers in Chicago showed Hispanic workers place a high value on being perceived as hard workers, which can increase their likelihood of taking risks, such as working too fast.

Smaller businesses experience a disproportionate burden of occupational injuries, illnesses and fatalities. Businesses with 10 or fewer employees are usually exempt from Occupational Safety and Health Administration reporting regulations. They are also more likely to hire workers who are at a greater risk for occupational injury, including young workers, people who are less educated and immigrants.

Approximately 90% of construction businesses employ 20 or fewer workers. From 1992 to 2010, 44% of construction workers who died as a result of injuries sustained while working were employed by companies with 10 or fewer employees. Nearly half of trenching and excavation fatalities occurred in companies with fewer than 10 employees; 70% of the fatalities occurred in companies with fewer than 50 workers.

Small business owners may lack return-to-work policies, post-injury administration, safety training, clear management guidance and onsite safety and health personnel.

Young Workers in Construction

Federal child labor laws restrict youth under age 16 from working in the construction sector. In 2014 only about 4.6% of youth laborers aged 16 to 24 were employed in construction trades, of which approximately 83% were between the ages of 20 and 24.

According to 2013 data, the construction industry accounted for 8.8% of injuries and illnesses among workers aged 16 to 24 with approximately 82% suffered by workers aged 20 to 24 years. From 2003 to 2007, workers aged 16 to 24 years in construction had the third highest rate of fatal injury in comparison with those in other industries.

Despite special protections for teen workers, young construction workers have reported using equipment or conducting tasks prohibited by federal child labor laws. Young workers who were fatally injured were more likely than adults to be employed at small, nonunion firms, and their employers were more likely to have been cited by OSHA for safety violations.

Evidence identifies both individual factors and work-related factors that increase the risk for job-related injuries among youth. Individual factors include:

  • minority status;
  • low socioeconomic status; and
  • adolescent risk taking and sensation seeking.

Work-related risk factors include:

  • fast pace of work;
  • inadequate supervision;
  • equipment use;
  • working late;
  • working with cash and customers;
  • lack of job knowledge and skills;
  • lack of job training; and
  • lack of job control.

Younger workers are less likely to recognize hazards, less likely to speak up regarding safety issues and less aware of their legal rights as workers.

A Vulnerable Population

Young Hispanic immigrants are more likely to work for very small construction businesses than are other racial and ethnic groups. In 2013, approximately 121,560 foreign-born Hispanics employed in construction were 16 to 24 years of age, and from 2009 to 2013, just under half of all young Hispanic immigrants in construction worked for a very small business.

According to estimates based on the National Health Interview Survey, approximately two-thirds of Hispanic construction workers in the U.S. in 2013 were not citizens, a factor that has been identified as a possible contributor to occupational health disparities among immigrants. Nearly one quarter of all U.S. Hispanic construction workers have been on the job for less than a year, and nearly three quarters have been on the job for less than five years. A high proportion (81.9%) of Hispanic construction workers report they receive no paid sick leave, which is noteworthy because previous research suggests paid sick leave may help businesses reduce the incidence of nonfatal occupational injuries.

Researchers found that each of the three vulnerabilities placed workers at higher risk for negative occupational health outcomes.

Fatal injuries for teenage construction workers tended to concentrate in small businesses, more so than for adults. A quarter of Hispanic teens working in construction received no safety training and approximately a quarter received less than one hour of training. Hispanic immigrants may have language barriers so young workers may not feel comfortable voicing safety concerns. Small business employees may not have access to up-to-date safety training.

Numerous organizations have developed Spanish-language OSHA training materials and some address cultural context in which these workers operate. However, these training materials may not address the concerns of young workers.

Solutions to Vulnerabilities

There are efforts to address the needs of these vulnerable workers. NIOSH is working with the Mexican government to identify and address occupational health inequities among immigrant workers with a focus on research and surveillance, outreach and building institutional capacity.

New Labor teaches immigrant day laborers to serve as peer safety leaders, training them to recognize safety and health hazards, to communicate effectively with coworkers and supervisors, and to facilitate tailored OSHA 10-hour training.

NIOSH and its partners have developed Youth@ Work—Talking Safety, a free curriculum that teaches foundational workplace safety and health skills and knowledge.

CPWR has designed worksheets to help managers, safety professionals and hourly craft workers learn about some of the important leading indicators of safety climate as well as ideas for strengthening them.

Addressing Multiple Vulnerabilities

More work needs to be done in three domains:

  • researching overlapping vulnerabilities;
  • developing and refining interventions; and
  • building sustainable efforts.

Efforts needed to address and reduce the pervasive and persistent occupational health disparities experienced by vulnerable workers include:

  • evaluating the potential overlap and interaction of different vulnerabilities;
  • developing interventions tailored to all relevant vulnerabilities;
  • working with organizations known to the target community, for effective diffusion of interventions; and
  • building relationships between OSHA professionals and community organizations and focusing on the sustainability of interventions.
by Marla McIntyre

Marla McIntyre is a digital editor of CE This Week and She edited Construction Executive’s Tech Trends and Risk Management eNewsletters and is the author of more than 200 articles and publications, including Construction Executive’s annual technology predictions, Technology & Software Rundown column and an award-winning series for the Risk Management Association. Her extensive construction and risk management background includes stints as executive director the Surety Information Office and American Subcontractors Association of Metro Washington.

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