June 27, 2012
Foreign workers need language skills
Guest Column | Gavan Howe
Worker safety is one aspect of new federal/provincial changes to fast track approval of foreign workers in construction trades, which has not yet received fair consideration.
No one is discussing language, the medium of safety communication and education. If a new construction worker is not fluent in English in Western Canada, they may be at greater risk of injury due to lack of comprehension and a sociological bias.
For example, short and long-term employees may view the foreign worker as being less capable and poorly trained, and therefore they may be assigned menial jobs, which includes riskier tasks.
These workers could have a tough time articulating safety concerns.
Construction remains one of the deadliest trades and although fatalities are down in some areas, they have increased in some trades over the past decade.
Dong, Fujimoto, Ringen, and Men state clearly in their large U.S. study, based on 17,350 samples, that “Hispanic workers are more vulnerable when they are employed in construction, one of the most dangerous industries in the United States”, and “the proportion of fatal falls among Hispanic workers increased over time from an average of 37 per cent annually, during 1992 to 2002, to 40 per cent in 2006, while it was stable for non-Hispanic workers during this period.”
Furthermore, “the demographics of Hispanic construction workers that died from falls are different from their white, non-Hispanic counterparts. More than 30 per cent of Hispanic fall victims were age 25-34, while it was less than 15 per cent for white, non-Hispanic workers”.
And: “80 per cent of the victims were foreign born and 65 per cent had been employed for less than one year”.
Based on this data, human factors are likely causing this increase. It could be age, a lack of training, education or English comprehension or peer and supervisory pressure.
Communication precedes value formation in a study by Berger and Luckman. It states: “language also plays an important role in the analysis and integration of everyday reality” for construction workers and if one cannot understand or be understood, how can they possibly learn the important safety values, which today’s contractors hope to instill in all their employees?
I argue, from a worker safety perspective, that these fast-tracked workers must pass a standard high school exam to prove they are fluent in English. They must receive the same safety training as our domestic construction workers or we will have more coroners’ inquiries at our jobsites.
The cost to an employer, if a worker dies or is severely injured on the job, far exceeds any savings on wages.
Let me also state clearly that this is neither a union nor non-union issue, but construction safety has the greatest impact on apprentices and young workers.
A recent three-year study by Kaskutas et al, from 2010 looked at 5,000 unionized residential carpenters, which were mostly young, white males.
It looked at falls from heights and found:
• The strongest risk factor predicting a fall was having less than one year of experience;
• For every 10 per cent increase in the percentage of apprentices at the worksite, there was a 27 per cent increase in ladder falls;
• 16 per cent of respondents had been asked to sign off on safety training they did not receive;
• Workplace safety climate influences worker behaviour;
• More than half of apprentices knew a colleague who fell from a height.
If these dangers exist for workers fluent in English, why would we suspect conditions on Canadian job sites would be any different for temporary foreign workers?
We need to ensure new construction workers are fluent in Canada’s official languages in order for them to understand and apply safe work practices.
Gavan Howe is president of www.Ebranders.com, a risk and safety communications firm. He is currently pursuing a PhD in organizational development. He is a founding board member of the Electrical Safety Foundation Int. and sits on the IEEE Electrical Safety Workshop. Send comments or questions to email@example.com.
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