A Latino worker died last year at this construction site near San Diego International Airport. Megan Wood, inewsource.
A Latino worker died last year at this construction site near San Diego International Airport. Megan Wood, inewsource.

The state agency responsible for protecting California workers employs fewer than 25 inspectors who are fluent in Spanish — despite overseeing a large Spanish-speaking workforce at high risk for injury on the job.

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[one_half][box type=”shadow this-matters”]Latino workers are fatally injured on the job at a much higher rate than other workers.[/box][/one_half]

Bilingual staffing levels at the Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal-OSHA, have been low for at least the past few years, according to agency records. But the latest numbers were recently disclosed by a former agency official one month after a state legislative hearing about the dangers faced by Latino workers.

“It’s very important for Cal-OSHA inspectors to be able to speak the language of the workforce,” said Garrett Brown, a former field inspector who closely monitors staffing levels at the state agency. “It’s part of the process of developing trust and communication with the community.”

Brown, who retired from Cal-OSHA last year after two decades with the agency, recently obtained records from the agency listing all employees who were receiving “bilingual pay” as of September. The extra pay is offered to employees who use foreign language skills an average of 10 percent or more of their total work time.

Records show that only 22 of the agency’s 195 field enforcement officers are earning extra pay for speaking Spanish. Additionally, the list shows that only three officers are getting paid extra for speaking other languages, including Cantonese, Mandarin and Vietnamese.

California has roughly 19 million workers. Of that total, nearly 7 million — or 37 percent — are Latino.

If Cal-OSHA has less than two-dozen Spanish-speaking inspectors to police such a large Latino workforce, “that’s going to be quite a handicap when you get to doing worker interviews during the course of complaint inspections,” Brown said.

In 2013, the fatality rate for Latino workers in California was 48 percent higher than the rate among the state’s other workers.

Field officers are responsible for inspecting workplaces for health and safety hazards and interacting with workers who file complaints against employers.

To better protect workers, Brown and other worker advocates say it’s crucial that the agency employ more inspectors who are fluent in other languages, especially Spanish. Brown specifically recommends that the agency at least double the number of its bilingual field officers.

In a written response to questions, Cal-OSHA acknowledged the value of having inspectors with foreign-language skills.

“Having bilingual skills can help field inspectors gather information during their inspections of workplace hazards and communicate with workers about the inspection process,” spokesman Peter Melton wrote, noting that the agency encourages bilingual candidates to apply for inspector jobs. “Employing more bilingual field inspectors will likely improve the quality of our inspections and will help us communicate with workers about the Cal/OSHA inspection process.”

Melton noted that there are likely more inspectors who use Spanish-language skills on the job but who are not receiving bilingual pay for doing so. The agency also said that it provides tuition, books and paid study time for employees interested in learning Spanish and other languages.

“If we want to make sure that as an agency Cal-OSHA really is able to enforce the rights of Latino workers and other immigrant workers, we need to really make sure that the agency reflects the population that it serves,” said Nicole Marquez, staff attorney at Worksafe, an Oakland-based organization that advocates on behalf of vulnerable California workers.

Last month, Marquez testified at a hearing on Latino worker safety convened by the state Assembly’s Committee on Labor and Employment. She and other speakers outlined the dangers faced by Latino workers.

In her testimony, Marquez noted that three Latino workers in California were killed on the job within a two-day span last year, including one who died while working at a construction site near San Diego International Airport.

Latino workers die on the job at a much higher rate than all other workers, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2013, the last year for which complete data was available, the fatality rate for Latino workers nationwide was 3.9 per 100,000 workers — that’s 18 percent higher than the rate for all other workers.

The numbers are even more alarming in California. In 2013, the fatality rate for Latino workers in the state was 48 percent higher than the rate among non-Latino workers.

Debbie Berkowitz, a senior fellow at the National Employment Law Project, spoke at a Nov. 19 state Assembly hearing about workplace safety for Latinos.

Workplace safety experts offer a few explanations for those statistics. For one thing, many Latinos work in dangerous industries, including construction and agriculture. They often don’t receive proper safety training. And many, especially immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, fear retaliation for reporting safety hazards or injuries to their employers.

“For Latino workers, many of whom are immigrant workers, they don’t want to jeopardize their employment by raising a health and safety hazard,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a senior fellow at the National Employment Law Project, a Washington, D.C.-based worker advocacy organization.  “That sort of ends up making their jobs a little more risky and unsafe.”

Berkowitz, who also testified at the committee hearing last month, said the burden of protecting workers falls first on employers. But she said the government can also improve safety conditions for Latino workers by stepping up enforcement and engaging the Spanish-speaking community to educate them about their workplace rights.

Berkowitz also echoes the calls for Cal-OSHA to hire more bilingual field inspectors.

“If you can’t understand the worker, then you’re going to lose all of that information in inspection and it’s not going to be thorough,” she said. “You’re not going to find out what the hazard is so that you can make sure that it’s corrected.”

Chris Young was a reporter at inewsource. To contact inewsource with questions, tips or corrections, email contact@inewsource.org.

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