Speaking My Language: How Bilingual Training Programs Enhance Safety

Safety is of primary importance for all workers, but the need for bilingual safety training has grown in response to the increase in Hispanic workers on construction sites.
By Hilary Daninhirsch
May 10, 2021

Native Spanish speakers make up a significant portion of workers in the construction industry. In 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 30% of workers in the construction industry were of Hispanic or Latino ethnicity.

Though this can vary by region, in some companies, the Hispanic workforce comprises a percentage much greater than the national average of 30%. At Miller & Long, a concrete construction company headquartered in Maryland, Safety Director Alex Rodas reports that approximately 80-85% of employees are Hispanic.

Safety is of primary importance for all workers, but the need for bilingual safety training has grown in response to the increase in Hispanic workers on construction sites.

TRIED-AND-TRUE Training Techniques

It is true in school, and it is true on the job: everyone learns in a different manner.

That is why it is essential to present information in a multitude of ways, as repetition will reinforce retention. “What may reach one learner may not reach another,” says Kate Badey, president of Safety Consultants USA, an Atlanta-based company that develops and delivers customized bilingual safety training programs to manufacturing and construction clients through the country.

Plus, not everyone in the workforce may be literate, so presenting a variety of training methods is key to overcome any learning or language barriers.

Still, it is a widely held opinion that hands-on demonstration of safety protocols is the most effective method of training, regardless of language.

“Demonstration of anything in a safety program, and getting people to participate physically in the training, is a much better and more effective way to learn and is a really great way to communicate information,” Badey says.

For example, she advises, on the issue of fall protection, a worker would bring his harness to the training and will be shown how to make sure it fits properly and how to inspect it.

“The more interactive we can be, the more likely it is that someone can retain that information when they leave our training center,” Badey adds.

Rodas says Miller & Long maintains a robust safety training program. Right off the bat, new hires are required to attend a safety orientation, followed by a 90-day awareness training, plus a myriad of classes on different topics, such as forklift training, rigging training, etc. The majority of all this training is done in-house.

Rodas agrees wholeheartedly about the hands-on aspect of bilingual safety training. “We like to see things, touch things and smell things. You’ll see it as we go through the training material, but you’re also going to do it. Like a respirator: you’ll take it apart, clean it, etc.,” he says.

Another interactive training tool Miller & Long has implemented to great success is Kahoot, a game-based learning platform that can be used to onboard new employees and engage them in any kind of training, including safety. Because it can be played online, Kahoot was an ideal fit as a learning tool to be implemented during the pandemic. “These guys love it; they get competitive,” Rodas says. “We’ve been using it for a couple of months now, and it gets them going and makes them think. That is what you want; you want them involved in the training.”

Other training methods include PowerPoints in Spanish for those who are able to read along, as well as printed materials, such as training guides. However, for those workers who are not literate, videos and live demonstrations are the better tools.

Rudy Alanis is the chief people officer for Helix Electric, headquartered in San Diego. His company trains everyone in English to prevent the creation of dual cultures—one in Spanish and one in English. “We do not have a safety program specifically for those who are Spanish-speaking; everything safety-related is in English, but we would support the Spanish version if there were issues,” he says.

Rather, to avoid miscommunications, Alanis says, it is better to encourage those who speak Spanish to understand the English portion of it. “We want everyone to understand those concepts in English, so there is no confusion when it comes to safety,” he adds.

When developing a curriculum for Spanish speakers, another thing to keep in mind is differences in dialect. Rodas points out that not everyone speaks or comprehends Spanish in the same way. “We understand that the writing, even the reading levels, is different in Central America than in South America. Even construction slang can be different. We adjust it so the workers understand,” he says.

Alanis agrees that a hands-on approach is best for anyone, regardless of language spoken, though his company will begin investing in more digital training classes, as he sees that as the way of the future.

“The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated what we were planning on doing and made us realize that this was something we needed to act on fast. But now, as things are starting to calm down, we don’t want to get away from the e-learning side of things,” he says.

Training Challenges

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome in providing training is the distraction factor, of which many people, no matter their native language, are prone. For that reason, training people in a distraction-free environment is quite important, but not all companies have the proper space. The space should also be comfortable and large enough to fit everyone. But in an era of social distancing, finding a large enough space can be a challenge.

“Making sure that the environment is suitable is optimal; that is important and is often overlooked,” Badey says.

COVID-19, of course, has forced some companies to shift things online, potentially making training a bit more challenging. Badey says that her company has done some training via Zoom and other virtual methods, but a lot of the training is still in person, albeit in a socially distanced manner.

“We can really verify a lot better in person that someone is understanding the information we’re communicating to them versus a Zoom call. We’ve all experienced Zoom exhaustion, and getting people to interact in a Zoom format can be very difficult,” she says.

“So even though we are operating under different set of circumstances, in my opinion, in-person training is and will continue to be the gold standard for safety training; we will just have to modify the way we are delivering that right now,” Badey adds.

Return on Investment

In general, a company can expect that for every dollar it invests in safety for employees, it can anticipate a return on two to ten dollars in that investment, Badey says.

“When training employees to be safe in any language, you’re teaching that employee to do things in a manner that is safe and consistent, eliminating injuries and the need for retraining a new employee. There are a lot of hidden costs within the injuries that employees receive that safety training can help to eliminate,” she says.

Safety is all about the decisions you make every day on the job and understanding those hazards. Rodas has seen first-hand the benefits of multilingual safety training, particularly as it gets everyone involved. “I have seen the difference when our guys understand. When you get employees involved, when you get management involved, when you get communication involved, that improves your safety program. That is the bottom line,” he says.

by Hilary Daninhirsch
Hilary Daninhirsch is a freelance writer for Construction Executive.

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