It’s the rare construction firm that doesn’t cite people as its most important resource. And over the past two decades, that asset has become increasingly bilingual. Indeed, more than 27% of workers in construction are Hispanic or of Latino ethnicity, according to the most recent available data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
For many contractors, particularly larger firms and those in the Southwest, where worksite banter has long been a mix of Spanish and English, conducting jobsite tasks in both languages is largely second nature.
But as the population of Hispanic construction workers has grown and expanded to other parts of the country, contractors appear to have minimal guidance for ensuring that otherwise capable members of their workforce fully understand what’s expected of them, how work can be performed safely and how they can refine and enhance key skills.
“It used to be that a worker had to be proficient in English to step on a jobsite,” observes Paul Goodrum, a professor in construction engineering and management at the University of Colorado and a specialist in researching industry demographics. Some companies have formulated their own policies as those barriers have fallen, he adds, “but there’s really no formal set of best practices for managing a bilingual workforce.”
Instinct and experience may be sufficient for some aspects of managing employees who speak English as a second language, but those methods may not be enough in critical areas such as safety. Numerous studies have found significantly higher occupational-injury rates among Hispanic and immigrant workers. And of the 991 U.S. private-sector construction-related fatalities recorded in 2016, 29% involved Hispanic workers.
Research by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has uncovered several contributing factors to this statistic, with both employers and workers citing language difficulties as the biggest obstacle to conveying safety information.
The inherent risks of construction work can also be compounded by immigrant workers’ unfamiliarity with certain tasks and standard safety procedures as well as work styles that differ from what their employer requires. But the challenge works both ways, according to NIOSH. Immigrant workers frequently report receiving little or no on-the-job safety training at all.
Goodrum notes that not all barriers to understanding may be readily obvious. “Trainees may speak Spanish but have little formal education,” he explains. “Their ability to read and comprehend Spanish in written form may be limited.”
Cirse Ruiz, a project manager with the Hispanic American Construction Industry Association (HACIA), says in urban areas that problem can affect small and midsize contractors who cannot afford union dues, and therefore aren’t bound by the organizations’ safety-training requirements.
With little financial flexibility and minimal profit margins, Ruiz adds, human resources services are secondary to getting the job done.
“They have to get by with what they have, and sometimes that means tools with bad electrical cords and no proper safety equipment,” she says. “Their excuse is that it’s a very small job and no OSHA inspectors will show up.”
However, Christine M. Branche, director of NIOSH’s Office of Construction Safety and Health, notes that focusing on language alone may lead contractors to overlook cultural differences that can affect how non-English-speaking workers understand, adapt to and address work-related safety concerns. Examples include “showing off” their productivity to secure or retain a job and being reluctant to speak up about potential safety risks for fear of attracting unwanted attention.
Still, no contractor can hope to ensure a productive and safe workplace for a bilingual workforce without the ability to communicate.
Branche identifies several possible best practices for overcoming language barriers, beginning with choosing the best English speaker among non-English-speaking employees to serve as a translator for other workers.
“If possible, safety professionals should consider having someone translate for them in real time,” she adds. Similarly, conducting daily and on-the-spot safety training in both English and Spanish “will prevent ‘lost-in-translation’ occurrences.”
A frequently cited example of bilingual construction safety training is a 40-hour course created for a major expansion program at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in the early 2000s. Prime contractors Hensel Phelps and Austin Commercial worked with a local training and development consultant to incorporate elements that helped overcome many common barriers. Those elements included bilingual instructors and curriculum developers; understanding and addressing cultural barriers, including those among different Hispanic communities; and verifying learning by having students replicate specific practices multiple times.
Contractors may want to consider going a step further, Branche says, by providing language classes in both English and Spanish. “All workers will have the opportunity to improve their communication skills and even their economic situation if proficiency with a second language is rewarded by a salary increase or a promotion,” she says.
Pictograms and images with simple sentences or no words at all also can help convey important safety information. Mike Pappas, associate director for funded studies at the Construction Industry Institute, cites Shell Oil’s “12 Life-Saving Rules” as a highly effective example of a useful way to reach all workers, including native-English speakers who may have limited formal education.
Goodrum believes that many successful construction safety-culture tactics transcend all languages.
“Love of family is a universal concept,” he says. “Encouraging workers to get to know each other better and put family photos in helmets and badges is a powerful reminder to help each other get home safely.”
The Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR) has likewise collected several recent studies and programs to address safety and health risks among Hispanic and Latino workers. Techniques for providing safety information ranged from on-site training to incorporating a plotline about fall protection into a popular Spanish-language telenovela, or soap opera.
CPWR also cites a Philadelphia study on the use of social media to convey safety messages that found that text messages sent during work hours were more effective than a specially developed Facebook page. Both were most effective when augmented with face-to-face interaction and training related to the message. The study also found that workers wanted information on how to report hazardous worksites without jeopardizing their jobs, on safe tools and equipment and on workers’ compensation rights and responsibilities.
Bilingual Management Toolbox
While there are some established strategies for making construction sites safer for workers of all languages, other areas—such as developing skills and training, project delivery, etc.—will almost certainly require creating a set of best practices as the presence of Hispanics in the workforce continues to grow. A 2015 study by Lexington, Mass.-based research organization HIS predicts that Hispanics will account for 75% of U.S. job growth between 2020 and 2034.
How the nation’s immigration policies unfold may alter those trends somewhat, but it’s “certainly an issue that contractors need to be aware of,” Pappas says. He adds that Hispanic demographics in construction also are poised for change. “Language may be less of an issue for the children and grandchildren of immigrants who were raised in the U.S. and are more integrated with our culture,” he says.
Indeed, Ruiz says a younger generation of Hispanic workers are already starting to take over the small construction businesses started by their parents. “They are more open to training their employees to avoid human casualties and stiff penalties,” he says.
But Goodrum would like to see greater investment in secondary education and overall training so that all students—Hispanic and non-Hispanic alike—are better equipped to learn and acquire skills that will be more in demand in the coming years.
“That,” he says, “is where success in the industry begins.”