In the nearly 30 years since Thomas Hsiao arrived in San Francisco, he said he has seen co-workers injure themselves in restaurants, factories and other workplaces. Xiao himself suffered tendon tears in his right shoulder in 2019, a stress injury he believes came from throwing a heavy potato fryer over and over again for years.
“It got really painful. I couldn’t even raise my hand,” Xiao said in Cantonese through a translator from the Chinese Progressive Association, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco.
But until recently, the 66-year-old Chinese immigrant never considered filing a complaint with California workplace health and safety regulators. Xiao, who now works as a janitor, said he didn’t know Cal/OSHA existed, let alone that the agency could investigate workplace hazards such as repetitive motion injuries.
In one of the nation’s most linguistically diverse states, Cal/OSHA officials say a high priority (PDF) is “direct communication” with workers who have limited English proficiency. Lacking English skills or legal status, many immigrants work some of the most dangerous low-paying jobs.
Critical Cal/OSHA services remain largely unavailable to those same workers, leaving them less protected, according to labor experts and worker advocates. A significant problem is the agency’s woefully inadequate number of bilingual safety inspectors, who are required to interview employees while investigating workplace complaints, injuries or deaths.
That’s even though state and federal laws (PDF) require public agencies like Cal/OSHA, formally known as the Department of Occupational Safety and Health, to take reasonable steps to provide full and equal access to their services to people, who do not speak English well.
Cal/OSHA’s language access gaps are particularly pronounced for workers in the state’s large Asian communities, particularly in the Bay Area and Los Angeles and Orange counties.
An analysis of 2019 census data by the USC Equity Research Institute conducted for KQED shows that the most widely spoken languages in the state after English and Spanish are Chinese, Filipino and Vietnamese, spoken by an estimated 600,000 combined workers with limited English proficiency or none at all.
Of the 214 inspectors employed by Cal/OSHA, only 21 were certified in a second language as of October, personnel records show. Nineteen were Spanish speakers, while only one was fluent in Cantonese and one in Vietnamese.
“This is very surprising, disturbing and disappointing information,” said David Chiu, cattorney for 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 particularly vulnerable to exploitation in the workplace, the lack of language skills on the part of Cal/OSHA personnel means that we don’t know what’s going on in those workplaces, we can’t enforce of the law and the lives, health and safety of workers are at risk,” Chiu said.
Cal/OSHA declined interview requests from KQED.
The agency is committed to communicating with workers and employers in their preferred language, said a spokesman for the California Department of Industrial Relations, which oversees Cal/OSHA and other labor enforcement departments. Cal/OSHA has additional staff who speak a second language but are not certified as bilingual, which involves taking an oral language proficiency exam, the spokesman said.
Still, two former Cal/OSHA inspectors, also known as safety and health officials, told KQED that the inadequate number of bilingually certified inspectors suggests 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 the English-speaking worker,” said Michael Horowitz, a retired Cal/OSHA inspector and Oakland area enforcement manager. “It is much more difficult to bring their problems and dangers clearly to the attention of the state health and safety inspector.”
Since mid-2019, Cal/OSHA has lost about a third of its bilingual certified inspectors, all Hispanic, according to a KQED analysis of agency lists of employees who are paid a monthly bilingual premium after being certified in another language.
As of last month, only 5 percent of the agency’s total of 964 budgeted positions, including field workers, managers and legal secretaries, were filled with bilingually paid staff.
That comes as the number of California workers with limited English proficiency has risen to 3.4 million — nearly 1 in 5 of the state’s workforce, according to analysis by the USC Equity Research Institute.
Using the estimated number of workers who speak other languages at home but report limited English proficiency, KQED calculates a rough ratio of inspectors who can communicate fluently with them.
Chinese-speaking workers face the largest access gap, with one Cantonese-certified inspector for every 309,000 workers. For Vietnamese-speaking employees, Cal/OSHA has one inspector for every 167,000 workers. And for Hispanics, there is one inspector for every 124,000 workers.
While far from ideal compared to other states, the ratio of safety and health officers to workers who speak English as a native or very good speaker is much more protective: one inspector for every 72,000 workers.
“A lot gets lost in translation”
Many immigrant workers in high-risk industries are reluctant to talk to inspectors about problems they’ve witnessed because they fear losing their jobs or distrust government agencies.
If inspectors can’t talk directly to workers and gain their trust, they may miss serious health and safety hazards, said Horowitz, who has worked for Cal/OSHA for more than 17 years. Effective investigations could ultimately lead to fines for employers and safer conditions for employees.
Horowitz said inspectors may rely on a foreman or manager to translate, but workers will be less inclined 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, money can be spent on it, but it’s certainly not a priority that I’ve seen in the state.”