At Heartland Workers Center (HWC) safety is about more than reducing the number of claims a company files in a year; it’s a tool for retention, employee engagement and overall well-being.
“Retention doesn’t always have to be bonuses,” said Executive Director Dr. Lina Stover. “Retention is about safety … it’s imperative we have systems in place to keep people healthy so that they can do their work and they’re able to go back home and be with their families.”
Keeping employees returning to work is even more important considering two major predicaments, one being the current unemployment rate, which sits at 2.4% for the State of Nebraska as of October 2022. The second is increased cash flow for construction projects courtesy of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds.
In Nebraska, Hispanic and Latino Americans make up the second largest demographic, helping fuel the local economy in manufacturing, construction, and other general industries.
Despite several industries having federally mandated safety training requirements through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Hispanic and Latino workers have seen consistent increases in workplace fatalities.
In 2020, 22.5% of workplace deaths reported to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics were from Hispanic or Latino communities, nearly 2% higher than in 2019. Historically, it was the fourth straight increase since 2016, whereas other races, such as white, Asian, and African American workers, dropped.
Stover said the reason can be linked to a major cultural difference between the U.S. and Latin America, where safety is often considered a luxury.
That’s where Penélope León’s work begins as the Health & Safety Training Institute (HSTI) trainer.
León joined Heartland Workers Center in 2014, just two years after HSTI was founded, after decades of working in workplace safety and health.
She is an OSHA-authorized outreach trainer for 10-hour and 30-hour classes in both construction and general industry sectors. She can also provide classes in both English and Spanish. To become a certified OSHA outreach trainer, OSHA requires that the applicant has experience in the applicable industry.
That experience is invaluable when training, said Stover.
“Not only does she get where [participants are] at, but she’s done some of those things,” she said. “I can tell you that I’m a great facilitator, but I will never be an OSHA trainer because I have not had any of those experiences.”
León’s personal background as an immigrant from Mexico City adds an additional layer of understanding as her first language is Spanish, followed by English.
She said that sometimes when English is a second language it can be hard to convey or interpret what certain words or phrases mean, so the ability to use both languages interchangeably, and sometimes even a mix of the two — sometimes referred to as Spanglish — is vital to the participants’ success.
“We need to talk like them so that they can understand easily what they need to take care of, and how to communicate with their employer,” she said.
Training is hands-on, furthering comprehension, and can be done on a jobsite, or at HWC’s office. As of 2012, HWC has provided more than 750 training sessions.
“[Workers] are really proud of what they are doing at their job and they are eager to share that with their co-workers,” León said.
To that end, HWC also offers leadership development programs, a worker’s rights program, and a worker’s action program to help spread awareness and open communication between employees and employers.
“Workers are the ones who are at the job site every day and they can be the best source of information to increase production and reduce losses by preventing injuries,” León said. “If we get them the information and teach them how to report and communicate, everyone benefits.”
Building communication skills is beneficial to everyone, which is why HWC expanded its programming to include a leadership development program exclusively for women. In its second year, it has helped 40 women find their voice in the workplace and their communities.
León noted how one participant was “shy and quiet” when she entered the program last year.
“This year she ran the GOTV (Get Out The Vote) campaign where she was in charge of new canvassers and led students during canvassing, teaching them and guiding them on how to knock on doors to promote the vote in their community,” León said.
Recognizing that workers’ rights can be influenced by external factors, such as policies and laws, HWC wants to help minorities engage in civic conversations.
Prior to the General Election HWC created the “I Vote For My Family” campaign encouraging individuals to consider how their vote extends to their family, friends, and community.
At one point, Stover said volunteers were canvassing over 400 houses a day, and in the last month had made over 70,000 calls.
“And that alone is civic engagement,” Stover said. “When you feel that you’re part of a community.”
Companies interested in scheduling bilingual OSHA training or supporting HWC are encouraged to visit its brand-new website (heartlandworkerscenter.org) to view services and programs.