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Jargon May Pose Danger to Hispanic Construction Workers

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Hispanic workers and others new to construction sites might be at risk of injury because of unfamiliarity with the jargon they hear in safety training and on the job, according to pilot studies conducted at Purdue University.


The university news service said Bryan Hubbard, assistant professor of building construction management, and James McGlothlin, associate professor of health sciences, teamed to lead the studies for presentation last week at the National Occupational Injury Research Symposium in Pittsburgh.

Hubbard and his team explored causes of work-related deaths and injuries in the construction industry, which previous studies have indicated usually occur early in a construction worker’s career.

“Safety trainers must cover a lot of material in a short amount of time and, therefore, use a lot of jargon and acronyms,” Hubbard said. “These terms are familiar to them and those in the industry, but our study found that this lingo isn’t understood by everyone on the construction site. Important information is covered in this training, and not understanding any part of it puts workers at risk.”

Hubbard and McGlothlin’s studies looked at terms used in the 10-hour safety training sessions by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that all construction workers are required to complete on safety procedures at construction sites. The studies were funded by a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

To evaluate the OSHA training, Hubbard and his team conducted three surveys with student interns in the construction industry: one before the OSHA training, one after the training but before they worked on the construction site for their first internship, and one after they worked at their first internship. That study was conducted in the summer of 2007.

The results indicted that many of the interns, who were mostly students in construction engineering management at Purdue, didn’t understand much of the terminology presented during the training.  Students indicated that they were unfamiliar with such termsas “PTO;” “which stands for power takeoff, a rotating driveshaft used to provide power to an attachment or separate machine; “MSDS,” an acronym for material safety data sheet, which provides information and procedures for handling or working with various substances; and “lanyard,” a cord used to hook a safety harness to a stable point. Hubbard said before allowing students to proceed with work on the construction site, safety instructors helped them understood the unfamiliar words.

The second study, led by McGlothlin, was a continuation of the first study, looking specifically at Hispanic construction workers, who have a disproportionate number of fatal accidents on construction sites. The survey looked at workers’ perceptions of construction safety, their experience with safety training and their familiarity with construction terms. The survey was conducted in Louisiana in the summer and fall of 2007 among workers who were helping to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

That study found that even fewer workers in this population understood the kind of terms that confused the Purdue students. Fewer than 20 percent of Hispanic workers understood any of the terms used in OSHA training, and some terms were understood by only 3 percent, the researchers said.

Hubbard and McGlothlin said a possible solution would be use of visuals during training, including pictures to illustrate construction-specific words.

“We shouldn’t eliminate the acronyms and jargon from the training because these are terms workers will need to know, but what we can do is associate visual elements with these words so they are familiar with the terms and what they mean,” McGlothlin said.

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