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“Myelita has added a new dimension to our patient care abilities. The Survival Spanish classes have been a huge success.”

- Sue Duensing, Corporate Education, Presbyterian Hospital

From electrical wiring and scaffolding to a wide variety of lethal chemicals, hazards are common on construction job sites. Are workers with limited English proficiency another danger on today’s multicultural construction projects?

Predictions are that Hispanics will comprise more than 50% of the construction workforce within the next five years. The accident and fatality rate for Hispanics in construction is already much higher than it is for either African-Americans or Caucasians. What’s the reason for this disparity?

The answers are both cultural and linguistic. The workplace in Latin America is a hierarchy with a well-defined chain of command. Workers go up the ladder with ideas or suggestions to their immediate supervisor. To many Latinos, a “good” employee trusts his supervisor implicitly- without questions. Asking questions can be seen as a threat to the supervisor’s authority instead of a desire for clarification.

The cultural barrier to communications is just as serious as the language barrier where safety is concerned. Even though many Hispanic workers are learning English, for many it is a Herculean task. For average Hispanic adults, the learning curve to speaking English fluently can take up to seven years and sometimes longer.Consequently, implementing training policies that are spoken and/or printed in English only will be ineffective and potentially dangerous.

There are many questions concerning how to deal with the potential dangers associated with non-English speaking workers in the construction industry. There’s no doubt that job sites will always pose some risks, however employers bear the ultimate responsibility for making the workplace as safe as possible.

Cultural diversity and Spanish language training for supervisory personnel will continue to provide some of the answers to this complex 21st century construction issue. A change in awareness may provide others.

Think about the ways you can create a new language of safety on your job site. When translators are not available, speak slowly, be direct using short simple sentences, and when possible use demonstrations. Show specific safety techniques and have all employees practice them. This practical training and facilitated communication is an important aspect of the new language of safety.

How to Break the Language Barrier
1. Speak slowly. Non-native English speakers need extra time to process what you are saying. Translating from one language into another isn’t automatic.

2. Be direct. Use short, simple sentences, especially when giving instructions. People learning English get lost in long sentences with complicated grammar.

3. Use a normal speaking voice. Don’t speak in a loud voice. Your employee doesn’t have trouble hearing you. They have trouble understanding you.

4. Use bilingual employees wisely. They are one of your company’s biggest assets. Group non-English speaking employees with bilingual ones. If possible, group people from the same countries together. Their language and accents will be the same.

5. Color. Identify bilingual employees with a brightly colored hard hat. When seconds count in an emergency they can be found quickly.