Safety, Liability, and Productivity: Breaking the Language Barrier on Construction Sites

Last year OSHA fined a Dublin, GA, contractor just short of $50,000 when a motorized compactor run by a non—English-speaking operator overturned, catching him under the rollover protection system and amputating his leg. Not only did the operator not speak English, company supervisors did not speak Spanish, and instructions for the compactor were in English only. OSHA found that because the employee wasn’t properly trained in the limitations of his equipment, he entered an area that was too steep for the compactor to remain upright. The occurrence of construction fatalities has reached such high levels in Florida that federal officials have initiated a program targeting the most deadly hazards on construction sites–falls, crushed- and caught-in accidents, and electrocution.

The number of Hispanics living in the United States has increased by almost 60% in the last 10 years, and projections are that by the year 2005, Hispanics will account for 14% of the population, making them the country’s largest minority. This growth has occurred not only in border states and eastern cities that are typically targets for Hispanic and Latino immigrants, but also in the Midwest and Southeast where Spanish-speaking arrivals have gravitated toward the construction industry. In the Carolinas, for example, some 80% of construction workers are Hispanic. Is the industry taking steps to accommodate the influx of Spanish- and other non—English-speaking workers? And are these efforts substantive or just lip service?

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As Kenneth Carpenter of Florida International University in Miami points out, the construction industry has always employed more than its share of immigrant labor, in part because it has typically been a place where employers haven’t been overly concerned about newcomers’ job or communication skills. Dennis Day, senior director of public affairs for the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) in Alexandria, VA, confirms the increase of Hispanics in the construction industry and points out that many have graduated from manual laborers to equipment operators. The International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE), which represents 400,000 laborers across the country, considers the development so significant that it has established a National Hispanic Outreach Program. “You have to give them the opportunity,” says Arturo Presas, IUOE’s Hispanic Outreach Program director. “I’d rather do that in a supervised, organized manner than hiring these people and putting them right in the seat operating equipment.” Regardless of the need for workers or the Hispanic community’s eagerness to fill that need, bringing Spanish-speaking workers safely onboard and developing them as an asset pose significant challenges.

“The language barrier is probably the biggest challenge we have in employing the Hispanic community,” says Sotelo, who is Latino. “It’s a real plus if I’m considering a Spanish-speaking person for a position and they’re bilingual.” Day agrees: “I would say that anyone who is hiring laborers from the Hispanic community is probably hiring bilingual workers whenever they can. And these people are probably on a faster track than those without English.” Likewise, Mark Schaunaman, apprenticeship director at IUOE Local 47 in Miami, reports that he finds it difficult to place workers in unionized jobs if Spanish is their only language. “There are certain companies willing to work with workers who only speak Spanish, foundation companies for example, until their English gets better,” says Schaunaman, “but for jobs like crane operators, where communication is important, they have to be bilingual.”

Such observations aside, the fact remains that bilingual workers, whether laborers or supervisors, are hard to come by, a situation that Sotelo points out makes it even more difficult to provide non—English-speaking employees the safety and operating information they need to protect themselves and their coworkers. “A lot of times I hear, ‘Hey, these guys need to learn to speak English,’” says Sotelo. “My position is that, in the meantime, we need to make sure they go home safe to their families each and every night.”

Presas thinks the need to reach Spanish-speaking workers is acute in a number of areas around the country. “There are a lot of horror stories out there in states like Texas and New Mexico and Arizona about people working under unsafe conditions or being put on equipment and told to learn on the job. This makes me think the language barrier is not the only problem. There is also the basic question of whether employers are providing training at all or adhering to safe work practices. In these circumstances, workers see things they know are not safe, but they’re afraid to speak up because they think they’ll lose their job.”

In Florida, where injuries and fatalities among Hispanic workers have made headlines and unionized employees are in the minority, IUOE’s Schaunaman reports that many Spanish-speaking workers are employed by small companies where training and benefits, such as workers’ comp, and health insurance are practically nonexistent. These factors suggest that many employers haven’t caught up with the fact that Hispanics are likely to be in the workplace for years to come. While OSHA doesn’t explicitly require that employers train non—English-speaking workers in their native language, at the agency’s office of Training and Education in Des Plaines, IL, Ernest Thompson says there is an awareness that “workers for whom English isn’t their native language might not get the same exposure to safety and health issues as unionized or English-speaking workers do.”

Peter Ruvalcaba, vice president of loss control for CNA Commercial Insurance in Chicago, IL, points to two additional factors that complicate bringing Spanish-speaking workers up to speed. Thirty-five percent of the US Hispanic population is foreign-born, and compared to Asian and European immigrants, most Spanish-speaking residents live close to their native country, which makes it easy for them to travel back and forth and maintain ties to their culture of origin. This doesn’t mean, says Ruvalcaba, that we should throw up our hands. He thinks there is reason for concern on a number of fronts. “Injuries, fatalities, and other preventable losses occurring on construction sites not only create needless suffering for victims and their families, but they affect the profitability of contractors, damage their reputation, and increase their insurance premiums.”

Is there a solution? Is anybody doing anything? The first logical first step would seem to be translating existing safety and operating materials into Spanish. Original equipment manufacturers (such as Caterpillar) who market their equipment worldwide provide text readouts on their equipment in a range of languages and make their operator and mechanic training available to dealers in languages other than English. Associations that serve the construction industry have taken similar steps. AGC has translated much of its safety and training materials into Spanish, has made its safety videos available in Spanish, and is one of several organizations that offers a Spanish-English dictionary of construction terms. The IUOE has followed suit, translating its apprenticeship materials. But while representatives of both organizations speak enthusiastically about the efficacy of these efforts, the word from the trenches is that what has been translated has not been widely used. Darrin Drollinger, vice president of technical safety programs for the Equipment Manufacturers’ Institute (EMI) in Chicago, IL, reports, for example, that his organization has translated more than half of its written materials into Spanish only to see them sit on the shelf. Drollinger speculates that one problem might be that some Spanish-speaking workers aren’t literate in their own language, an observation seconded by other observers who also note that illiteracy can also a problem among Anglo workers.

While acknowledging that he sees a need for Spanish-language materials, Jim Headley, director of the Crane Institute of America in Maitland, FL, states that he considered translating the institute’s manuals into Spanish but finally concluded there wasn’t enough demand to warrant the effort. As if to prove Headley’s point, almost four years ago, Rick Longstaff, president of VISTA Training Inc. in Burlington, WI, says he responded to requests to translate some of his organization’s 150 training videos and printed materials into Spanish, only to see the effort die on the vine. “Most of the advice came from the equipment manufacturers who helped establish VISTA, as well as from some contractors,” says Longstaff. “We concentrated first on the topics that were not equipment-oriented, like hand signals and trailering equipment, and then expanded into equipment operation as more and more Hispanics moved into that part of the industry.” Longstaff reports that over the four years the Spanish-language materials have been available, the company has sold, at most, 20 copies. Since the price tag on the Spanish-language materials reflected the cost of translation, Longstaff lowered the price to be equal with the English versions, only to see the demand remain flat. He also reports that while the company has bilingual instructors available for training, he has yet to arrange a Spanish language program. Ironically, VISTA’s most popular product is its pocket-size English-to-Spanish dictionary of construction terms, which is so popular the company can barely keep up with demand.

From his perspective as a loss-control specialist, Ruvalcaba suggests that one reason contractors haven’t been quick to snap up Spanish-language materials is the lack of research documenting the effects of communication barriers in the workplace. He also thinks the availability and quality of Spanish-language materials are limited, in part because there are no regulations that require employers to train workers in their native language. Another industry observer suggests that the low demand for Spanish translation materials might reflect a backlash among employers who resent having to pay extra money to train non—English-speaking workers. From his observation point in southern Florida, Carpenter reports that in areas with a strong state OSHA presence, there is more of a push to reach workers who don’t speak English. “In south Florida, we have some 16 federal compliance officers overseeing nearly 5% of the total construction volume in the US. In North Carolina, where they’ve got the same kind of problems and do about the same volume as our three southern counties but the program is state-run, they have over 300 compliance officers.”

Among some observers, the issue of whether or not there are enough Spanish-language materials available begs a more important question. “The big problem is not shortage of materials,” says Carolyn Guglielmo, director of safety and health services for AGC. “It’s the shortage of people who can communicate effectively with Spanish-speaking workers and have a sense of what their culture is about. In AGC’s five-day Construction Safety Management Training Course, we have a section called ‘Breaking Bilingual Barriers’ that we added about a year and a half ago, which provides information on the necessity of supporting people who have poor language skills. We recommend a job-site buddy system, for example; we encourage contractors to employ bilingual speakers and avoid isolating workers because of their language skills. We encourage employers to learn more about their workers’ backgrounds and understand values such as the importance of family among the Hispanic population.”

Chip Murray, safety director for AGC’s chapter in Charlotte, NC, reports that the chapter has embarked on a program that includes many of the components Guglielmo suggests. The chapter has developed its own Spanish translation of 72 toolbox talks covering the most common on-the-job construction hazards; a Spanish pocket safety guide, which addresses OSHA’s construction standards in easy-to-read bullet points; and its own version of an English-Spanish construction dictionary. “Our safety committee has observed that when you get down to it, the people who actually have their hands on the hammers or shovels are more and more Hispanic,” says Murray. “Something had to be done to bridge the language barrier, something more than just offering some English-to-Spanish classes. You need to get right down to their level.”

The chapter also makes a set of Spanish-language safety videos available for contractors to borrow and, in what Murray thinks will be its most effective move yet, has recently brought onboard a former OSHA trainer who speaks Spanish and whose job is to conduct cultural awareness and safety training classes. Similar to Guglielmo, Murray considers it crucial for Anglo employers to understand elements of Hispanic culture that might make it seem unmanly, for example, to tie off for fault protection or ask why there isn’t a trench box in a trench. “You would think that it might just be the residential contractors, the smaller companies that are having problems,” says Murray, “but the big contractors are experiencing the same thing. I think it’s because the training just hasn’t been thoroughly done. Around here we see of a lot of situations where one Hispanic who can speak fairly good English kind of acts as the interpreter for the rest. The OSHA standard says you must train people in a language they understand, but relying on one Spanish-speaking employee on a job site who speaks limited English and doesn’t have a safety background to translate everything a safety manager says is not the correct way to do it.”

Murray reports that since the chapter brought its Spanish-speaking trainer aboard, half the classes requested by contractor members in the last nine months have been in Spanish. He also explains that the chapter went to the bother of translating its own materials because developing materials locally is a better way to address the needs of the contractors who will use them, as well as their workers. The chapter made an initial investment of $15,000 to translate its existing materials and has gradually been recouping the cost through sales. On deck is a CD-ROM that will use digitized images along with on-screen text in English and Spanish to present the chapter’s entire stock of safety materials. Murray anticipates the program will be useful for both English and Spanish speakers who don’t have adequate reading skills and projects it will likely be offered on the chapter’s Web site, which provides the additional advantage of allowing employers to track training sessions for individual employees.

Training experts tend to agree that two aspects of AGC’s Carolinas program bear repeating: the use of visuals to reinforce written information and the absolute importance of using bilingual speakers in safety and training. At EMI, for example, Drollinger sees a future in symbol-based training. “There’s been a real push toward a broader use of symbols, although the effort is proceeding slowly because of reaction from the legal community, particularly among some old-line lawyers who insist that using symbols without words isn’t adequate to protect an employer from liability exposure. Even with that, I predict symbols are going to find a wider use in training, and they have the advantage that they can be used both on equipment and on pipelines and that kind of thing.”

From his position as a professional trainer, Longstaff suggests that video is the most effective and most versatile training format and the one most often employed by contractors. “Video is the most popular format because people retain more of what they see as opposed to what they hear or read. It’s also quick, and contractors have come to think of it as the best way to cover the topics they think they need to cover to protect themselves. Our videos run anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes. Most often we hear that the supervisor or whoever does the training brings a VCR on-site and breaks the presentation into segments, sometimes as small as five minutes each. This actually might even be preferable to viewing the entire program all at once, as long as there’s time for discussion. The video is designed to show generic situations, and to make it effective, whoever is doing the training must be able to relate what the video presents to the situation in which the information will be applied.”

Ruvalcaba thinks hands-on training provides the most effective training, supplemented with videos or printed material for backup support. “The point is,” he says, “contractors shouldn’t think that setting a Spanish-only crew in front of a video is effective training.” Both Ruvalcaba and Longstaff are critical of the practice of relying on video or written materials while neglecting interpersonal interaction. Despite its emphasis on Hispanic outreach, which includes a push to hire bilingual administrative employees, the IUOE continues to teach its apprenticeship programs in English and currently has no bilingual instructors. At Miami’s Local 47, where Spanish-speaking participants make up half of the program, Schaunaman matches Hispanics with bilingual participants who can answer questions about information as it’s presented. “It’s not the best system,” says Schaunaman, “but it’s what we have right now.” Presas reports that the union is also making an effort to bridge the communication gap with its mentor program, whereby new union members are paired with veterans who can help answer questions and show newcomers the ropes.

Sotelo, whose work force is one-quarter Hispanic, insists it’s crucial that safety instructors and on-the-job supervisors be bilingual or are otherwise able to communicate in the language their workers understand. “One day I sat in on one of our safety meetings and listened to the instructor talk for about 20 minutes. When he was finished, I looked around the room and said, ‘I’ve got a question. Whoever understands what I’m talking about, raise your right hand.’ Only half of the people in the room raised their hand. The rest were just sitting around, signing a safety minutes book and listening to the instructor talk. Which is what led us to put a designated bilingual safety person on every job site. That’s one benefit of hiring Spanish-speaking workers and developing them into long-term employees. The people who started working for us speaking Spanish and then learned English are the greatest people to have doing the training.”

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“What we are hearing pretty much across the board,” observes Longstaff, “is that the need for training in the construction industry is great. You will even find that most people agree there’s a need for training in Spanish. But when it comes to execution, training becomes the last thing on the totem pole and probably the least understood as far as return on investment, even though studies show the return on investment is two-to-one. A lot of companies think of training as a cash drain and don’t do it. Experience shows that sooner or later they’re going to have an accident.” Sotelo insists that the investment an employer makes in bilingual training always far outweighs the cost. “Imagine being able to effectively communicate to your workers what needs to be done on a job site. But it’s more than efficiency or even safety. If a company is proactive enough to go beyond giving their Spanish-speaking employees a card with basic safety rules in Spanish, then they’re going to end up with a group of hard-working, as well as safe, employees. And when people like and respect and trust who they work for, fewer accidents happen. Good employees make money for you.”

Asked what he’d tell other contractors based on his experience hiring and developing Hispanic workers (W.G. Clark’s Spanish-speaking-only employees are given financial incentives to learn English and the company retains a human resources person to help the families of Hispanic employees sort out such issues as health insurance), Sotelo doesn’t miss a beat. “I’d tell them things are changing. And they should wake up and do something about it.”