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NC's construction industry more dangerous for Latino workers

A fire broke out at a construction site in the 7700 block of Liberty Row Drive in Charlotte on Thursday, May 18, 2023.
Steve Harrison
Two workers were killed when a fire broke out at a construction site in Charlotte's SouthPark area on Thursday, May 18, 2023.

Latino construction workers are more likely to die on the job in North Carolina than their white or Black counterparts. That’s according to an analysis by the Charlotte Observer. The latest census numbers show Latinos make up 27% of construction workers in the state, but account for 60% of construction workers who die on the job.

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

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

Ames Alexander: One reason is that Latino construction workers do many of the most dangerous jobs. For instance, more than 60% of roofers in North Carolina are Hispanic, and roofing is some of the most dangerous work there is. The three workers who died in last year's scaffolding collapse in Charlotte are kind of an unfortunate example of that. They were working on a rusty and deteriorated scaffold — doing a very dangerous job — and they were all Latino.

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

Terry: You mentioned the language barrier that is common between employees and their employer. What about state inspectors who make sure job sites are safe? Is there a language barrier there as well?

Alexander: There sure is. There are about 80 workplace safety inspectors now working in North Carolina and just nine of them are fluent in Spanish, according to the state Department of Labor. That means the vast majority of these inspectors can't communicate with some of the employees who know the most about workplace dangers and accidents.

Terry: Are there enough of these inspectors overall, much less ones that speak Spanish?

Alexander: That's a great question. Safety advocates say there aren't nearly enough. Some construction companies go many years between inspections, that's true of many employers. Others are never inspected at all. The number of workplace safety inspections at North Carolina construction sites has really plunged over the past decade — and this was during a decade when the construction industry has expanded rapidly.

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

Alexander: Academic researchers have actually come to that conclusion. Latino people in North Carolina have been dying on the job at roughly twice the rate of white and Black workers, according to a 2022 study that was published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

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

Alexander: Well, yes and no. There's a federal program that's designed to help safety inspectors get to the bottom of what's happening on job sites that have a lot of immigrant workers. It's called DALE, and that's short for Deferred Action for Labor Enforcement. Basically what it does is, it allows federal and state OSHA programs to seek temporary protection from deportation for immigrant workers who cooperate in their investigations. But that program's only been used once by the North Carolina OSHA program. Worker advocates [that] I've talked to say they'd like to see it used a lot more.

Terry: Besides that, what, if anything, can Latino workers do to ensure their job sites are safer?

Alexander: One thing they can do is call the North Carolina Department of Labor to report unsafe work conditions. Workers can obviously educate themselves about their rights and protections at work. They can also talk to a worker center or Latino center to get advice and support. El Centro Hispano is one, and the North Carolina Justice Center has a program called the Workers’ Rights Project, and that's another place that may be able to offer some help.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.