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Fast Fast Forward

Lost in translation

Construction sites must become fluent in safety

Construction sites must become fluent in safety


Language and cultural differences can present significant safety risks for U.S. employers with non-native English-speaking workers. On construction sites, those challenges are especially acute.

In both private and public construction, many workers are Spanish speakers. That is not surprising when we consider that the fastest-growing demographic in the United States is Hispanic/Latino.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, residents of Hispanic origin represented 16.4% of the total U.S. population in 2015. Workers of Hispanic origin accounted for 13.4% of all labor in construction, extraction and maintenance in 2013, the most recent year for which data is available. Another interesting fact is the number of U.S. residents age 5 or older who speak Spanish at home reached 38.4 million in 2014, a 120% increase since 1990. That number of Spanish speakers equates to 13% of the entire U.S. population.

Currently, eight states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Texas — have Hispanic populations of 1 million or more. By 2060, the Census Bureau projects that the nation's Hispanic population will exceed 119 million, or almost 29% of the total. Increasingly, employers' ability to communicate with such a large group of Spanish speakers is becoming a necesidad.



Who is bridging this language gap? Often, it's people who know Spanish but do not necessarily understand safety and loss control."


Bridging the gap
A reality at many U.S. construction sites is that managers tend to be native English speakers, while labor is usually a mix of Spanish and English speakers. Who is bridging this language gap? Often, it's people who know Spanish but do not necessarily understand safety and loss control. Cultural differences also make clear communication more difficult. On top of that, not knowing how to interact with non-native English speakers can cause managers and other employees to simply avoid talking to them.

​A construction foreman for a large contractor admitted that on most of his job sites, the Spanish-speaking workers, many of them subcontractors, tended to keep to themselves, and he didn't try to engage them in conversation. In relating this situation during a cultural training program, he realized that he had been treating Spanish-speaking workers like pieces of equipment, not fellow human beings. In environments such as construction sites, where everyone needs to be on the same page regarding safety, avoidance is not only a risky tactic -- it's not necessary.

​Between avoidance on one hand and acquisition of foreign language fluency on the other is a sensible third option: basic language and cultural training of managers as well as workers, to help them better understand each other and work together to create a safer job site.

​Non-verbal communication, such as body movements and positioning, do not always translate across cultures, and that can lead to serious misunderstandings. One example that is relatively common among Hispanics and other groups is head nodding. A nod does not necessarily signify agreement; in many cultures, it merely means acknowledgment. It is a way of communicating "I am listening, but I may not agree with what you are saying." Misinterpreting nods for agreement can have serious consequences on a construction site, in terms of productivity, efficiency and safety.

​Safety should be a top priority for all employers, but there are other important reasons to try to engage non-native English speakers. Recruiting and retaining labor are much easier to achieve when employees feel valued and understood. There are numerous studies showing a correlation between employee engagement and business results. Engaged employees are safer, more productive, more likely to refer talented job applicants and often serve as valuable ambassadors for their company's brand.

​Please visit Fast Fast Forward for future articles in which we'll explore strategies that employers can use to increase employee engagement and improve job site safety across languages and cultures.

About the Authors

Scott Merchant is the head of XL Catlin's North America Construction Risk Engineering team.


Bradley Hartmann is the president of Red Angle Inc., a company that provides leadership and employee training to bridge cultural and language gaps at worksites.

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