Immigrant construction workers and day laborers are often the most vulnerable parties in post-disaster cleanups. In the wake of massive cleanup efforts following 9/11 or Superstorm Sandy, immigrant workers frequently become guinea pigs in unsafe conditions.
Now a $547,000 grant from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) will help prevent construction workers from falling prey to dangerous workplace conditions by training a team of workers to assess safety and health hazards. The grant was awarded in late September and will be distributed over the next two years.
Given to the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems (CBNS) at Queens College of the City University of New York and the immigrant-focused nonprofit Make the Road New York, the grant will be used to train a cadre of around 20 workers in the special skills needed to evaluate risks following disasters.
Armed with smart phones connected to a specially developed mobile app, those workers will then evaluate the safety and health risks they encounter at different worksites and record them.
“We will be able to get a snapshot of 200 to 300 worksites,” Steven Markowitz, the director of CBNS said. “We’ll know, not just in theory, but in reality, what are the prevalence of the hazards they face.”
Though this grant will help to turn a handful of workers into safety and health hazard specialists, Make the Road and CBNS have worked together since March to train around 500 workers in workplace safety and provide them with protective equipment.
“What do these guys need the most? They need the actual equipment to protect themselves because the employers wouldn’t normally provide it,” Markowitz said. “Hard hats. Steel-toed boots and respirators.”
Diego Palaguachi, an Occupational Safety Trainer at Make the Road, explained how the safety training had raised awareness of the importance of being safe on the job.
“[For many] Latino workers, occupational safety is the last thing on their mind,” he said. “The priorities when we go to work are not requesting PPE [personal protective equipment]. It’s just about surviving through the job to be paid.”
The training has also had the added benefit of opening workers up to conversations about safety risks that may have been taboo beforehand.
“We all have the same issue, but we don’t talk too much about it,” Palaguachi said. “‘This is what happens to me,’ and someone kicks in ‘This happens to me as well,’ and suddenly we are communicating the same situation between all the workers.”
Make the Road and CBNS are currently working to develop the mobile platform and to select the group of workers to train. The app and training are slated to be up and running by February.