Training Hispanic construction workers: Safety requires more than a hard hat

By Jean Elliott, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences

Related podcast (837.3kb): The Language of Safer Construction

Costruction sites today are typically screened off from the general public and curious onlookers are relegated to safely peeking through holes in the fence. Inside, workers are surrounded by various hazards. As the project advances, the crush of bulldozers gives way to the whir of table saws and the blasts of nail guns. Scaffolding quivers and the fibers from insulation settle silently amidst the fumes from paints and carpets. Perhaps paramount, however, are the issues of language and culture that exacerbate the hazards of these worksite conditions.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, the construction industry employed 2.9 million Hispanic workers in 2006, accounting for 25 percent of the total employment of 11.8 million in the construction sector.

Hispanic workers may not know what type of construction they are expected to do until they arrive at a jobsite. Then, they may have difficulty understanding their supervisors’ instructions in English. A United States-based managerial or training perspective has failed to take in the language, cross-cultural, and political dimensions of the situation, according to Assistant Professor Carlos Evia. A specialist in professional writing in the Department of English and a native of Mexico, he is particularly well suited to expand the understanding of the problem. After extensive research, he is also providing recommendations and materials for solving this life-threatening issue.

Evia’s interest in construction “goes way back to when I was a kid and my dad was a civil engineer in Mexico. We would go around on the weekends and visit various construction sites.”

Impressionable and impressed, Evia wanted to emulate his father. The senior Evia went back to school, earned a Ph.D. in business administration, and continued his career as an administrator at the University of Yucatan. Carlos then heard his father say that he would like to be a professor in the United States, a dream that was never realized, but one that the young Evia adopted as his goal.

Evia earned a degree in communication and went on to become a journalist in entertainment news. Frustrated with the “terrible technical writing” that accompanied new software purchases in the newsroom, he earned a master’s in computer science, determined to create better manuals. He not only wrote better guides, but he developed software that is still in use. Evia then focused on a Ph.D. in technical communication and rhetoric at Texas Tech University.

His interest in construction never diminished, however, and while in Texas, he became acutely aware of Hispanics as an at-risk professional group in need of good technical communication products. Today, Evia is actively engaging academia with government and nonprofits to reduce construction accidents.

Evia serves on the leadership team of the Center for Innovation in Construction Safety and Health Research ( at Virginia Tech, which was created to reduce work-related accidents, injuries, and fatalities in the construction industry. The center’s innovative training methods are designed to reach workers of different ages, genders, and ethnicities, paralleling the demographics of the actual workforce.

“Understanding Hispanic audiences, the largest minority group in the United States, is a plus for any technical communicator,” says Evia. Hispanic construction workers are at a disadvantage in many jobsite situations because they must make both cultural and organizational adjustments, while attempting to learn safety requirements in a new language. According to the most recent Department of Labor statistics (2006), Hispanic workers were victims in 917 fatal injuries. In the construction industry, the number of fatal injuries involving foreign-born Hispanic workers more than tripled between 1992 and 2002 (reported cases).

Developing the training tools…

Using a participatory design format, Evia conducted qualitative field research among residential Hispanic construction workers in order to develop user-friendly training materials that can be used in short sessions. His goal is to incorporate those materials into technical communication products for use on the jobsite to improve overall safety.

As a first step, Evia observed and interviewed a group of construction workers from El Salvador at a construction site in Leesburg, Va. He also reviewed available training materials. By conducting both individual and group interviews, he assessed their needs, problems, and levels of competence. Together with the workers, he collected ideas on how to improve both safety and communication at work. Because of the workers’ limited English, and in some cases the inability to read Spanish, Evia determined that the government-mandated text-heavy manuals needed to be transformed for easier comprehension.

“The workers wanted to know the cause and effect of unsafe practices,” says Evia, “but they didn’t want it to be gory. In fact, they really wanted it to be presented with a sense of humor.”

So, who better to illustrate the consequences of unsafe jobsite practices than the workers themselves? During the next sessions with additional workers from El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico, “We developed visual materials with the construction workers,” reports Evia. “Sure, they were not works of art, but they reflected the workers’ opinions and needs.”

From there, storyboards were developed for comic books. Using illustrations originally developed by a colleague at University of Massachusetts Lowell, Maria Brunette, Evia created sample comic books and returned to the construction sites for feedback. Gauging the Hispanic workers’ reactions and low-literacy skills, Evia believed that a multimedia approach might be even more compelling. Shooting videos that focused on methods for improving workplace safety raised its own set of dilemmas. Falls from scaffolding are the biggest risk at a construction site — but sans Hollywood and stuntmen, how was that to be depicted? Onsite cameras made workers nervous. Hiring graduate students as “actors” did not seem like a prudent approach. Not to be deterred, Evia was eventually inspired by an eBay find to make stop-motion videos using Little People figures. He coordinated an agreement with Fisher Price, and now continues his work with their permission.

Put into real practice, the end result was entertaining, but it was not all “fun and games.” The videos had the distinct effect of illustrating the consequences of unsafe practices. Evia tested knowledge transfer with quizzes given before and after developing the materials. While there was some improvement in knowledge of worksite safety, it was clear that a human element was needed to help deliver the information.

Developing the mentors

Findings also suggested that while most workers did not receive any formal training in construction skills or safety, they learned by observing an informal mentor. Experienced Hispanic construction workers possess tacit knowledge on how to “make it” in the profession. That knowledge should be made explicit to new workers and could be accomplished through a mentoring process. It was generally agreed that group meetings during the lunch break might give workers an opportunity to introduce and review concepts of safety and communication on the jobsite.

According to Evia, the long-term goal of creating competent and safe Hispanic construction workers is basically contingent on two things. “First, we need to capture and reuse construction knowledge in effective visual materials, and then those concepts must be implemented in structured on-the-job training, whereby an experienced mentor trains novice employees. Hispanic construction workers already do this in an unstructured and informal way,” says Evia. “But structured on-the-job training does not create experts in a day and should be frequently evaluated and updated. In addition, it usually requires incentives for those training the novices.”

Challenges and conclusions

Due to the high turnover of workers and the “invisible factor” associated with fear of immigration officials, particularly on the East Coast, Evia says, “It is difficult to evaluate behavior and conduct a longitudinal study on the impact of these teaching tools. The workers are genuinely concerned about having a safe jobsite. But they are most interested in pleasing their supervisors. Frankly, in their eyes, job retention tops safety.

“In addition, because the Hispanic workforce is internally diverse with disparate literacy levels and language skills, we cannot make generalizations. And as products are developed to bridge these gaps, we really need frequent audience analysis,” Evia says. He believes that the next steps include interacting with workers in a social environment, such as at church or in a soccer league, to recruit evaluators. Adding such incentives as bonuses or training certificates might also prove beneficial.

Evia’s research received its initial funding from the summer grant-writing institute organized by the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, and the Center for Innovation in Construction Safety and Health Research. He is currently seeking funding from the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety.

With grants from the Virginia Tech Center for Innovation in Construction Safety and Health Research, Carlos Evia has conducted participatory design with Hispanic construction workers. Photo by Jim Stroup.

“The workers wanted to know the cause and effect of unsafe practices, but they didn't want it to be gory. In fact, they really wanted it to be presented with a sense of humor.” – Carlos Evia. Photo by Jim Stroup.

Based on the workers’ input and ideas, Evia's research has produced sample materials, including comic books and videos, focusing on methods for improving workplace safety. Photo by Jim Stroup.

Photo illustration by Jim Stroup.

Through an agreement with Fisher Price, Evia uses 2.5-inch-tall Little People construction figures for his stop-motion videos, which he is incorporating into a longer training program for Hispanic construction workers. Photo illustration by Jim Stroup.

Science and math learning enhanced with a song

Carlos Evia is also one of the lead researchers on a synergistic project that applies rhetoric, creative writing, and music to teach science and math concepts to young children in remote regions of Appalachia. The SMILE (Science and Mathematics Inclusive Learning and Engagement) project uses metaphors and similes embedded in children-oriented stories and songs to convey theories and ideas.

With Tonya Smith-Jackson, associate professor of industrial and systems engineering, and Ivica Bukvic, assistant professor of music, as co-investigators, the SMILE group received a seed grant from the Virginia Tech Institute for Society, Culture, and the Environment to develop instructional materials to build educational toys that would help Head Start workers convey easy-to-understand concepts of mining and engineering. These materials are produced in a participatory approach with potential users serving as consultants and evaluators. These children can’t read yet, but by putting concepts into lyrics, and then putting the lyrics into song and stories, the children will better understand the science.

“We hope to embed concepts for Head Start children by putting action verbs into songs so that they can remember,” says Evia. Bukvic created the music for the songs while graduate students in the Ph.D. program in rhetoric and writing developed the lyrics, with toy prototypes created by students in industrial and systems engineering with input from parents.



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