“Health and safety are in danger”: only one safety inspector in California is bilingual in Chinese or Vietnamese

In the nearly 30 years since Thomas Xiao arrived in San Francisco, he said he has seen co-workers injured in restaurants, factories and other jobs. Xiao himself suffered torn tendons in his right shoulder in 2019, a stress injury he says was caused by throwing a heavy fryer with potatoes over and over for years.

“It got really painful. I couldn’t even raise my hand,” Xiao said in Cantonese through an interpreter from the Chinese Progressive Association, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco.

But until recently, the 66-year-old Chinese immigrant had never considered filing a complaint with California regulators charged with protecting workplace health and safety. Xiao, who now works as a janitor, said he didn’t know Cal/OSHA existed, let alone that the agency can investigate workplace hazards like repetitive strain injuries.

In one of the most linguistically diverse states in the country, Cal/OSHA officials argue that a high priority (PDF) is “direct communication” with workers who have limited English proficiency. Due to a lack of English skills or legal status, many immigrants work part of the lowest paid most dangerous jobs.

Essential Cal/OSHA services remain largely inaccessible to these same workers, leaving them less protected, according to labor experts and worker advocates. A significant problem is the woefully insufficient number of bilingual agency safety inspectors who are required to interview employees when investigating workplace complaints, injuries or fatalities.

It’s even if State and federal laws (PDF) require public agencies like Cal/OSHA, officially known as the Division of Occupational Safety and Health, to take reasonable steps to provide full and equal access to their services to people who are not fluent English.

Cal/OSHA language access gaps are especially pronounced for workers in large Asian communities across the state, especially in the Bay Area and Los Angeles and Orange counties.

An analysis of 2019 census data by USC Equity Research Institute conducted for KQED shows that the most common state languages ​​after English and Spanish are Chinese, Filipino and Vietnamese, which are spoken by approximately 600,000 workers combined with limited English proficiency or no way.

Of the 214 inspectors employed by Cal/OSHA, only 21 were certified in a second language as of October, according to personnel records. Nineteen were Spanish-speaking, while only one was fluent in Cantonese and one in Vietnamese.

“This is very surprising, disturbing and disappointing information,” said David Chiu, cattorney in the city of San Francisco, where more workers speak Chinese at home than Spanish, unlike elsewhere in the state.

“When you have literally millions of Californians who speak other languages ​​who are especially vulnerable to workplace exploitation, the lack of language skills on the part of Cal/OSHA staff means we don’t know what is happening in these jobs, we cannot enforce the law, and workers’ lives, health and safety are at risk,” Chiu said.

Cal/OSHA declined KQED’s interview requests.

A line graph showing the estimated total number of LEP workers in California, 2010-2019

The agency is committed to communicating with workers and employers in their preferred language, said a spokesperson for the California Department of Industrial Relations, which oversees Cal/OSHA and other law enforcement divisions on work. Cal/OSHA has additional staff who speak a second language but are not certified bilingualwhich involves passing a fluency test, the spokesperson said.

Still, two former Cal/OSHA inspectors, also known as compliance safety and health officers, told KQED that the insufficient number of bilingual-certified inspectors suggests just how ill-equipped the agency is. to conduct investigations involving workers who primarily speak languages ​​other than English.

“I think it’s pretty obvious that they don’t have the same protections as an English-speaking worker,” said Michael Horowitz, retired Cal/OSHA inspector and district enforcement officer in Oakland. “It’s much harder to clearly bring their issues and hazards to the attention of a state health and safety inspector.”

Since mid-2019, Cal/OSHA has lost about a third of its certified bilingual inspectors, all of whom are Spanish-speaking, according to a KQED analysis of monthly-paid employee rosters. bilingual bonus after being certified in another language.

As of last month, only 5% of the agency’s total 964 budgeted postsincluding outreach workers, managers and legal secretaries, were filled with bilingual paid staff.

It comes as the number of California workers with limited English proficiency soared to 3.4 million, or nearly 1 in 5 of the state’s labor force, according to analysis by USC Equity Research. Institute.

A portrait of a middle aged man.
Thomas Xiao, 66, stands at the Women’s Building in San Francisco after attending a town hall for essential workers on September 28, 2022. Xiao, who works as a janitor, said he had never heard of Cal /OSHA until recently. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

Using the estimated number of workers who speak other languages ​​at home but report limited English proficiency, KQED calculated an approximate ratio of inspectors who can communicate fluently with them.

Chinese-speaking workers experience the largest access gap, with one inspector certified in Cantonese for every 309,000 workers. For Vietnamese-speaking employees, Cal/OSHA has one inspector for every 167,000 workers. And for Spanish speakers, there is one inspector for every 124,000 workers.

Although far from ideal compared to other states, the ratio of safety and health officers to workers who speak English as a native language or very well is much more protective: one inspector for every 72,000 workers.

“A lot gets lost in translation”

Many immigrant employees in high-risk industries are reluctant to tell inspectors about problems they witness because they fear losing their jobs or mistrust government agencies.

If inspectors aren’t able to speak directly with workers and gain their trust, they can miss serious health and safety risks, said Horowitz, who has worked for Cal/OSHA for more than 17 year. Effective investigations could eventually lead to fines for employers and safer conditions for employees.

Horowitz said inspectors can rely on a foreman or manager to interpret, but workers will be less likely to speak up if their boss is present.

“It’s not a good situation to get a true picture of what the workplace hazards might be,” Horowitz said. “A lot gets lost in translation. Clearly some money could be spent there, but it’s definitely not a priority I’ve seen in the state.

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