Diego Sanchez came to the U.S. from Colombia 22 years ago, knowing no English.
Back then, “if you had a hammer and tools, you could get a job,” he said. “Now, everything’s changed.”
Today, Sanchez is a health and safety education instructor with Alaska-based Northern Industrial Training, a construction and trucking education company that opened an office in Dickinson last year. He conducts courses in Occupational Safety and Health Administration certification, first aid, Hydrogen Sulfate Awareness and Petroleum Education Council compliance — and starting this month, he’ll be teaching some of them in Spanish.
The Oil Patch draws in unknown numbers of long-term and seasonal workers — “chasing the dollar,” Sanchez said — often from the Southern states and even south of the border.
And many, like Sanchez, come with little or no understanding of English.
But the necessary training programs like the ones Sanchez teaches aren’t always available in Spanish, and for workers with limited English skills, that could have dangerous consequences out in the field.
Latino workers, many of them foreign-born, died in work-related accidents at a rate of 3.7 per 100,000 workers in 2010, higher than both white (3.6) and African-American workers (2.8), according to a report by the U.S. Department of Labor.
Sanchez and his wife, Lina, an office administrator at NIT, said they wanted to make Spanish-language training available after they heard of some students faking their way through the English-language training courses and sometimes even buying certificates online.
“People are going to find a way to get a certificate because they want the job,” he said. “They go into class, they nod. They’re just going through the motions.
“The Latino community has to have that training, and I want to give them the training in their language.”
Sanchez translated his own hydrogen sulfate materials; Petroleum Education Council basics and training in first aid, CPR and use of automated external defibrillators are already available in Spanish. He said he hopes to teach his first Spanish-language course in May or June.
“Instead of understanding 10 percent of the class, they’ll understand 90 percent,” he said. “That’s my goal.”
OSHA requires that employers provide safety training to employees “using both a language and vocabulary that the employees can understand,” David Michaels, OSHA assistant secretary of labor, wrote in a 2010 memorandum reiterating the policy to regional administrators. However, employers often don’t follow the mandate, or aren’t aware of it.
“Most of us don’t know what we don’t know,” said Todd Tavis, lead instructor at the nonprofit North Dakota Safety Council.
The organization offers safety trainer authorization as well as safety training to employees, but currently only in English.
If a student is required by an employer to take a safety course but isn’t able to follow instruction in English, “they’re not allowed in the class,” Tavis said. “They have to be able to understand and communicate. It is a dilemma amongst OSHA trainers here in North Dakota.”
To get the training, a Spanish-speaking student might have to go out of state. North Dakota has no Spanish outreach trainers listed on the OSHA website able to conduct courses in Spanish, but, as Tavis points out, that doesn’t mean bilingual instructors don’t exist here.
The Safety Council is discussing partnering with Bilingual Safety Education, a training and interpretation service provider, to offer Spanish-language courses by July or August this year.
Aglae Young started Bilingual Safety Education last November after working as a court interpreter for five years. She and her business partner, Sylvia McElvany, decided to add OSHA courses to their services after working with a number of farmers who needed interpretation to communicate with new hires from Latin America, most of whom didn’t speak English.
“With the oil boom and with all those companies coming to North Dakota, we noted that there is a big number of Spanish-speaking workers, and the training is not offered in Spanish anywhere,” Young said.
“That’s why we started. I thought, ‘Who’s training these people?’ “ she said.
Young is now authorized through the North Dakota Safety Council to teach OSHA 10 and 30, as well as CPR and first aid, and is ready to start running courses in both English and Spanish.
“We’re just testing the water on this,” Tavis said. “We’re finding that there’s a huge potential. We haven’t measured it, but our gut tell us there’s a need.”
It’s a need that will keep growing, said Northern Industrial Training instructor Sanchez.
“Just being a part of the community gives me a sense of how big we are,” he said, and employers would be smart to look into this largely untapped resource.
He and his team have started doing outreach to Spanish speakers, who he said want to receive the proper certification to work, but may hesitate to approach a company that only offers English services.
“If I can reach out to a different community and make them safer, I’m happy,” he said.