The challenge of communicating with Spanish-speaking workers impacts many industries, but the challenge hits construction firms especially hard, as Hispanics are disproportionately more likely to be injured or killed on the job.

The communication challenge is also evident on the bottom line. In unsympathetic terms, injuries and deaths are a drag on profits.

The truth is the construction industry does not communicate well with Spanish-speaking workers. Managers see the value in speaking Spanish, but few commit the time necessary to learn. Often, the typical classroom Spanish lesson is irrelevant, boring and long—a poor combination for learning anything.

However, with the right approach, Spanish can be learned relatively quickly.

1. Acknowledge Workers

Managers often fail to acknowledge Hispanic workers because of the language barrier. This can cause the Hispanic worker to
feel more like a functional machine rather than a human being.

However, the language barrier on the jobsite may be more perceived than real. According to the Pew Hispanic Research Center, 65 percent of all Hispanics in the United States speak English. As such, jobsite leaders must stop ignoring workers who appear to only speak Spanish and actually find out how they communicate best.

2. Understand the Numbers

Leaders are expected to know the numbers driving the business: revenue, profits, fixed costs, manhours, labor rates, etc. This information is critical, but the numbers driving the demographic changes on the job are important, too.
  • 53 million: Number of Hispanics in the United States, a 50 percent increase since 2000.
  • 27: Median age of U.S. Hispanics.
  • 74: Percentage of new jobs that will be filled by Hispanics between now and 2020, according to research conducted by Time Magazine.
This data illustrates that Hispanics are young, growing in number and willing to work hard. With that in mind, any business strategy must account for the effective leadership and management of Hispanics.

3. Start With Spanish ‘Twins’
Spanish “twins” are words that are identical or nearly the same in English and Spanish. These terms are easily remembered; the focus is just on the pronunciation.

These are examples of identical Spanish twins:
  • material (mah-teh-ree-AHL)
  • plan (plahn)  
  • metal (may-TAHL) 
  • base (bah-SAY)
These are safety-related Spanish twins:
  • arnés (ahr-NAYS): harness
  • lentes (LEHN-tehs): safety glasses or lenses
  • conos (KOH-nohs): cones
  • barricada (bah-rree-KAH-dah): barricade
These Spanish verbs are familiar to English speakers:
  • mover (moh-VEHR): to move
  • usar (ooh-SAHR): to use
  • instalar (en-stah-LAHR): to install
  • comenzar (koh-mehn-SAHR): to commence or start
  • terminar (tayr-mee-NAHR): to terminate or finish
With a little practice, these Spanish terms are easy to recall.

4. Ask Questions
Puede (PWAY-deh) means  “Can you” and is easily paired with Spanish twins to form simple questions.
  • ¿Puede mover los conos? Can you move the cones?
  • ¿Puede instalar el material? Can you install the material?
  • ¿Puede comenzar/terminar? Can you start/finish?
These phrases are relevant, memorable and brief, and can help leaders more effectively direct Hispanic workers onsite.

5. Have a Sense of Humor
Learning a new language—even a small subset of the language like safety Spanish—requires people to get comfortable with imperfection. Language learning can be a fun team exercise. Perfection is not expected, and laughter should be encouraged.

6. Understand the Culture
English-speaking leaders on the job probably have preconceived notions of Hispanic culture, but this information doesn’t necessarily help improve safety, productivity and profitability.

An easy way to increase cultural understanding is by downloading CultureGPS Lite, a free iPhone and iPad app that gives businesses insight into the cultural characteristics of other countries.

7. Show Appreciation
Language barriers, perceived or real, often
limit the praise given to Hispanic workers. Owners and managers can begin to show more appreciation with these two Spanish twins:
  • excelente (ayk-say-LAYN-tay): excellent
  • fantástico (fahn-TAH-stee-koh): fantastic
And gracias (GRAH-syahs), or thank you, never hurts either.

The best companies view effective communication with Hispanic workers as a competitive advantage and as a way to reduce injuries onsite.


Bradley Hartmann is president of Red Angle, a language training and eLearning company focused exclusively on the construction industry. For more information, email bradley@redanglespanish.com.