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Spanish: The New Language of Safety?

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From rigging 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? Possibly. Many safety experts believe that accidents resulting from language and cultural barriers will soon become among the most dangerous and costly in the industry.

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. Cultural attitudes play a very important role in workplace safety. 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 and respects his supervisor implicitly—without question. Asking questions can be seen as a threat to the supervisor's authority instead of a desire for clarification. This cultural barrier to communications is just as serious as a language barrier where safety practices are concerned. As for the language barrier itself, even though most Hispanic workers are learning English, for many it is a Herculean task. According to US census figures, almost two-thirds of Hispanics over the age of 27 are functionally illiterate. For average Hispanic adults, the learning curve to speaking English fluently can take up to seven years. 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 critical training and facilitated communication is an important aspect of the new language of safety that will reduce accidents and promote increased efficiency.

Breaking the Language Barrier

To connect with Spanish-speaking employees, Myelita Melton, president of SpeakEasy Communications, offers the following tips:
  • Speak slowly. Non-native English speakers need extra time to process what you are saying. Translating from one language into another isn't automatic.
  • Be direct. Use short, simple sentences, especially when giving instructions. People learning English get lost in long sentences with complicated grammar.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Color. Identify bilingual employees with a brightly colored hard hat. When seconds count in an emergency they can be found quickly.

About the Author

Myelita Melton, president of SpeakEasy Communications, is the author of the SpeakEasy Spanish™ series. Survival Spanish for Construction is one of the firm's most popular titles. Melton is a nationally recognized expert in language and cultural diversity. She delivers a variety of high-content programs to business and industry nationwide. Contact Myelita through the company's website at
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