Break Down Language Barriers With Migrant-Friendly English

Migrant workers are a particularly vulnerable group in construction’s labor force. By using language that is clear and easy to understand by non-English speakers, contractors can improve safety for all workers.
By Kirsten McSharry
January 15, 2019

The Tower of Babel is the story of the construction project of a tower that would reach the heavens, and save the people of Shinar from the coming flood. The project got off to a flying start, but as the deadline approached the number of workers grew until there were so many languages on site that the workers were unable to understand each other and the project collapsed in chaos. Though HR, IT and communications have moved on since the ambitious kingdom of Shimar folly, there remains something curiously familiar about this story.

Migrant workers are over-represented in work-related accidents and fatalities, and this is an avoidable statistic. They are recognized by OSHA and the International Labor Association as a particularly vulnerable group in construction’s labor force. An overlap of risks include language and cultural barriers, while anxieties around visa status and short-term contracts can cause workers to expose themselves to risk and avoid “making a fuss” when they are unclear of instructions. Research describes a culture of underreporting accidents among immigrant workers, which means that immigrant worker accident numbers could be artificially low.

Beginning to Break Down Barriers

Pictograms are used to warn against known hazards but, as it takes time to design and print them, new hazards cannot be communicated by pictogram immediately. Some construction companies employ native-speaking or bilingual safety officers and foremen. However, more often than not, migrant workers who are deemed to have “good English” are used as interpreters. This is risky because management cannot be sure that interpretations are accurate.

Many American companies provide safety orientation in native languages such as Spanish. While this is useful, migrant workers leave site orientation unfamiliar with the English words for hazards, so there are at risk even in minor emergencies. In addition, relationships and communication don’t develop easily when there is a language divide.

Few construction companies provide English language classes to their migrant employees and Spanish language classes to their supervisors, management and foremen. They report increased communication and productivity.

Taking a Step Further

It seems clear that there is not one solution to overcoming language barriers on site, but many working together. Site orientation and toolbox talks are recognised as valuable opportunities to provide safety information, but how can construction companies get the message across to low-level English speakers? Communication styles need to be adapted to reach an international audience. “Migrant-friendly” English is effective, simple to learn, simple to use, and will significantly improve communication and safety on construction sites.

Migrant-friendly English avoids verbs such as “take out” and “blow up” and replaces them with “remove” and “explode,” as Latin-based words are more common to a wide range of languages, especially Spanish. In fact, a version of the word “explode” exists in 17 different European languages.

In addition, migrant-friendly English avoids contractions such as “can’t” and “don’t” (use “cannot” and “do not”). It also is about 30 percent slower than native-speaker speech and composed of short sentences.

Tips for employers

  1. Adopt a best practice language system at work. Ensure all safety information and instruction is in migrant-friendly English.
  2. Teach English terms for construction site hazards to migrant workers. Seventy-five percent of Latino workers speak some English, according to a 2010 American Community Survey.
  3. Encourage workers to speak English.
  4. Provide free English language classes.

There is a range of communication effectiveness across the industry, but what is needed is a fully standardized approach. There is expertise that can be applied simply and cost effectively. A best practice language system can be developed by every company. Safety standards mean nothing if they are not effectively communicated. Migrant-friendly English is a very cost-effective step where a small investment has a big return on safety, wellness and productivity—and that’s good news for everyone.

by Kirsten McSharry
Kirsten McSharry is the founder and CEO of Inclusify, a consultancy and training firm dedicated to ensuring communication is presented effectively to low-proficiency English speakers.

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