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Bilingual Best Practices for Construction


In construction, where people are the most important resource, the industry has become increasingly bilingual with many Spanish speaking employees.

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 Spanish as their primary 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 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 Spanish 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, the ability to effectively communicate is essential to ensuring safety for a bilingual workforce.

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,” says Branche.

Employment background checks agency SafestHires tries to accommodate construction firms that are hiring Spanish-speaking employees and this is how their Spanish Background Checks process works. “We provide a candidate invitation email in Spanish, with a Spanish FCRA Summary of Rights, but our online background check application is in English,” says SafestHires co-founder Andrew Andersen. “The invitation email informs the candidate that the online application will be in English and the candidate should have someone with them who is fluent in English and can assist them with the application, if needed,” he said.

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. Hispanic demographics in construction also are poised for change, which means language may be less of an issue for the children and grandchildren of immigrants who were raised in the U.S.

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.”

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