‘Safety Liaisons’ for Immigrant Workers

Safety liaison Arsecio Ludeña leads a 10-hour construction safety class for immigrant workers in Brooklyn. (Photo by Samia Bouzid for Voices of NY)

Gregorio Palestina knew nothing about construction when he moved to New York from Mexico City in 2007. But he quickly found work as a construction day laborer.

At one of his first jobs, outside a home in East New York, the foreman handed out tools to the four day laborers he had picked up that morning. They had a simple job: to take down a wire fence.

Palestina watched one worker haphazardly grab a freehand circular saw and begin cutting through a metal post. And although Palestina, a former ironworker, had walked as blindly into this field as his fellow workers, he had already seen the damage this tool could do to an untrained operator — more than once.

“Not like that!” Palestina cautioned his co-worker, but the worker was in a hurry. The foreman wanted everything done fast.

The disk bore through the metal and, in the moment the pipe split, the raw metal edge swung up and sliced open the man’s head.

No one called 911. The foreman taped a piece of gauze to the injured worker’s face. The next week, the worker was gone. He was a day laborer. Any worker could take his place.

Palestina, who has worked for a decade in New York City construction, has seen many construction accidents. But it hurt, he said, to watch preventable accidents occur and feel powerless. Last year, Palestina joined a team of Hispanic workers called “safety liaisons,” who train their peers in construction safety.

Each year, Hispanic construction workers are disproportionately injured and killed on the job, mostly because of inexperience, lack of protective gear and fear of speaking up. The safety liaisons, members of a community labor organization called the Worker’s Justice Project, are trying to tackle this problem in New York City by training workers to recognize hazards, ask for what they need and understand their rights as workers, regardless of legal status.

“We get here thinking that it’s all about work and producing money to send home to our families and we ignore the risks that arise in this work,” said Arsecio Ludeña, one member of the team.

The liaisons got their start in 2012, about a year into the building boom that is still burgeoning in New York City. Since the beginning of the boom, the number of construction workers killed citywide has risen from 17 in 2011 to 25 in 2015, according to the most recent data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Injuries have more than tripled over the same period.

In part, this is because of the type of projects fueling the building boom, according to an associate of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the media. The city has issued many permits to build new affordable housing, especially since 2014, when Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his plan to add 200,000 units of affordable housing over 10 years. Many of these contracts don’t pay well because they rely on government subsidies, forcing developers to cut costs by hiring nonunion labor, including day laborers.

Nonunion labor helps keep prices down, but Juan Carlos Sandoval, a representative from the union Local 79, said that nonunion workers often lack thorough training. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency responsible for workplace safety, requires only 10 hours of construction safety training — and only for projects worth at least $250,000. By contrast, union workers complete hundreds of hours of training before ever stepping onto a worksite.

Sandoval says most accidents occur because of ignorance of safety basics, and Palestina agrees.

“Many people come from the countryside and they have never seen an electric tool in their lives,” said Palestina. Others are highly skilled professionals coming from white-collar jobs in their home countries. All they have in common is their inexperience in construction.

The first safety liaison program

But the 12 safety liaisons now offering instruction through the Worker’s Justice Project hope to inform and empower the Hispanic day laborer community in all five boroughs. In Newark, New Jersey, a group of liaisons affiliated with the labor rights group New Labor, which developed the first safety liaisons program, have been at work since 2012. Marién Casillas Pabellón, the director of New York’s safety liaisons, says she hopes to add at least eight new liaisons to her group each year.

Safety liaisons begin by taking a four-day, train-the-trainer course developed and hosted by New Labor to learn the fundamentals of construction safety and become certified as safety liaisons. Some members go on to take an OSHA course hosted by the United Steelworkers Union, which authorizes them to issue OSHA cards to workers who complete the mandatory 10-hour OSHA construction safety classes.

Once certified, safety liaisons lead the classes in Spanish and focus on the experiences of immigrant workers.

Contractors frequently take advantage of immigrant workers who don’t speak English, don’t have working papers and often don’t dare report their bosses for fear of losing their jobs or being deported. Often, contractors skimp on protective gear, such as hard hats, masks, gloves and harnesses.

“They would just give me orders,” said Eudes Salas, a worker from Mexico, who became a safety liaison last fall. “‘Oh, demolition – go do it.’ No gloves. Not even a mask.”

During one demolition, Salas watched a wall come down on his colleague, who had no idea how to demolish a wall and wasn’t wearing a hard hat.

Often, he said, a contractor will just take an injured worker out to the street. “If they ask you where you hurt yourself, it wasn’t here,” Salas recalled his former boss telling a worker.

For years, Salas didn’t know he and others had any recourse against mistreatment.

But the liaisons teach the workers that they have legal rights, regardless of their legal status, including the right to demand safety equipment. Under OSHA regulations, it is illegal for employers to fire or otherwise punish workers for doing so.

Furthermore, workers can file complaints to OSHA anonymously, in writing or over the phone, without revealing their legal status. They can even make a complaint through the liaisons, who have a direct contact at OSHA.

Identifying hazards

But a formal complaint, said Salas, is a last resort, reserved for what are called “imminent dangers”: serious safety violations that could cause severe injury or death. If an inspector has to shut down a worksite, that hurts both the contractor and the worker. It’s better, Salas said, to talk things out.

But imminent danger is not the only danger. Safety liaisons alert workers to subtler hazards like silica dust and lead, which can slowly poison workers. By the time symptoms appear, it’s too late to correct the problem.

“You’ve worked here and there, with this boss and that boss,” said safety liaison Jorge Palacios. “In the end, who are you going to blame?”

The safety liaisons teach their peers where those risks lie: what materials are likely to contain toxins, which chemicals can enter the body through their pores and lungs.

Out of the dozens of workers they train every month, the liaisons can’t be sure how many have gone on to fight for safer workplaces. But Palacios feels encouraged by the growing flow of construction workers filling the classes month after month. Many, he said, find the safety liaisons through word of mouth.

Salas, who has only been a liaison for several months, said the program has changed him. Now, each time he walks onto a new site, he looks around. He identifies hazards and asks for what he needs. He has been surprised to see that employers generally respect him for asking.

Salas hopes to see this change in other workers.

“Our goal is to reduce the deadliness of the workplace for us Hispanics,” Salas said, “so we don’t see any more deaths, any more families left without fathers.”

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