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North Carolina construction industry more dangerous for Latino workers

Latino construction workers are more likely to be killed on the job in North Carolina than their white or black counterparts. This is according to an analysis by the Charlotte Observer. Figures from the latest census show that Latinos make up 27% of construction workers in the state, but they account for 60% of construction workers who die on the job.

To talk more about this, I’m joined by Charlotte Observer reporter Ames Alexander.

Marshall Terry: So, you discovered that there are many things behind the disparity in these numbers. Explain to me some of the reasons and are there any local cases that illustrate some of them?

Ames Alejandro: One reason is that Latino construction workers perform many of the most dangerous jobs. For example, more than 60% of roofers in North Carolina are Hispanic and roofing is one of the most dangerous jobs there is. The three workers who died in a scaffold collapse last year in Charlotte are an unfortunate example of this. They were working on a rusty, dilapidated scaffolding – doing very dangerous work – and they were all Latino.

Language barriers can also play a role. If you don’t understand English very well, you may not understand the safety warnings and messages given in the workplace. Some construction companies have translators at their safety meetings, but others do not, several workers told us. On top of that, recent immigrants are less likely to say no to a dangerous task or report an unsafe work environment, because if they lose that job, they may lose their ability to feed their family or remain in the US.

Terry: He mentioned the language barrier that is common between employees and their employer. What about state inspectors who make sure workplaces are safe? Is there also a language barrier?

Alexander: Surely there is. There are currently about 80 workplace safety inspectors working in North Carolina and only nine of them speak fluent Spanish, according to the state Department of Labor. That means the vast majority of these inspectors are unable to communicate with some of the employees who know the most about workplace hazards and accidents.

Terry: Are there enough inspectors of this type in general, much less those who speak Spanish?

Alexander: That’s a great question. Safety advocates say there aren’t enough. Some construction companies go many years between inspections, the same goes for many employers. Others are never inspected at all. The number of workplace safety inspections at North Carolina construction sites has actually plummeted over the past decade, and this was during a decade in which the construction industry has expanded rapidly.

Terry: And you found that Latino workers in North Carolina face higher risks in other jobs, not just construction, right?

Alexander: In fact, academic researchers have come to that conclusion. Latinos in North Carolina have been dying on the job at about twice the rate of black and white workers, according to a 2022 study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

Terry: I’ve talked to some of your colleagues about efforts to make construction sites safer in general, especially after a fire at an apartment complex under construction in SouthPark about a year ago killed two workers. But is anything being done at the state or federal level to make construction sites safer specifically for Latino workers?

Alexander: Well, yes and no. There is a federal program designed to help safety inspectors get to the bottom of what happens in workplaces that have many immigrant workers. It’s called DALE and is short for Deferred Action for Labor Enforcement. Basically what it does is allow federal and state OSHA programs to seek temporary protection from deportation for immigrant workers who cooperate in their investigations. But that program has only been used once by North Carolina’s OSHA program. The worker advocates I’ve spoken to say they would like to see it used much more.

Terry: Beyond that, what, if anything, can Latino workers do to ensure their workplaces are safer?

Alexander: One thing they can do is call the North Carolina Department of Labor to report unsafe working conditions. Obviously, workers can inform themselves about their rights and protections at work. They can also talk to a worker center or Latino center for advice and support. The Hispanic Center is one, and the North Carolina Justice Center has a program called the Workers’ Rights Project, and that’s another place that can offer some help.