“Trans-global unity”. Sounds pretty lofty. Add hardhats and a lunch wagon and you’re seeing it in action. A construction jobsite is a “melting pot” of languages, customs, and perspectives—a cultural gumbo whose outcome is a building that stands for an age. This is collaboration made real.
In the long run, it will not only rein in today’s pandemic, but create a stronger industry with better communication for everyone on a jobsite.
The culturally mixed nature of the construction project is one of the industry’s strengths. But as the COVID-19 virus makes its way around the globe, the inter-cultural jobsite may be something else, as well—a truly golden opportunity. What if the dire necessities of this historical moment prompt the industry to lead the way in a long-awaited multilingual model that elevates jobsite inclusivity while protecting worker safety and public health?
This large-scale public health emergency requires clear communication for the adoption of even the simplest procedural changes to effectively slow down the virus’ progress. Construction’s ESL (English as a Second Language) workers have to be brought fully into the conversation. In the long run, it will not only rein in today’s pandemic, but create a stronger industry with better communication for everyone on a jobsite. Step one is understanding the scale of the problem.
Construction’s Common Language
Engineering News Record reports that of the 991 construction fatalities in 2016, 29 percent involved Latino/a workers. This may mean the construction culture doesn’t have the resources to address the language barrier often found on the jobsite. These communication failures can result in safety missteps. If ever there was a test-case for the importance of clear communication, it is this COVID-19 moment—and the adoption of safety measures that impact literally everyone.
People in the U.S. workforce with limited English proficiency are already at risk for health and safety issues on the jobsite. Information disseminated in someone’s second language — even a language over which the worker has some command—is not likely to be as clearly received as it would be in their native language.
In 2019, Latino/a workers comprised a solid 30% of the domestic construction workforce’s 11.3 million total workers. This number is expected to grow another 11% by 2028 as Latino/a participation in construction grows. Some percentage of this cohort likely speaks Spanish as their predominant language. In this context, how can we be sure in the current global health crisis that life-giving communications are being capably conveyed and understood on the jobsite? This may be an opportunity to build lasting practices that assure comprehension of critical information in the construction workplace.
How can we be sure in the current global health crisis that life-giving communications are being capably conveyed and understood on the jobsite?
One organization with a vested interest in repairing the communication gap is the American Contractors Insurance Group (ACIG), the construction industry’s insurer of record. It would be tough to imagine a business whose product success is more closely allied with workplace safety, risk mitigation, and the collective well-being of the construction worker.
“Our Safety Lessons Learned Bulletin is our publication that we routinely translate into Spanish,” says Kara Carper—Operations Manager at ACIG. “It’s a single-page quarterly publication handled by the Safety & Quality Department of ACIG. It’s put together with the help of one of our bilingual employees, and bilingual individuals who work for some of our Member companies.” It may seem a small thing to produce a bi-lingual safety best practices list for jobsite posting, but to the jobsite worker in search of clarity on the critical issue of safety, this bulletin could make a huge difference.
“We started translating this publication into Spanish in the Fall of 2018, when our members suggested we explore the benefits of the translation. It was determined that it would benefit the membership for us to translate this publication, as many of them post these lessons on their jobsites for their employees to view.” ACIG’s practice dovetails with that of the CDC, whose Spanish-language COVID information site is getting word out across an array of languages.
One massive—and much-referenced—program to bring the ESL construction worker cohort into the middle of the project culture occurred in the early 2000s, during a multi-billion dollar improvement project at the DFW (Dallas-Ft.Worth) International Airport. In that instance, the so-named DFW Capital Development Program—working with the Construction Education Foundation of North Texas—produced and oversaw a mandatory 40-hour construction safety training encompassing some 14,000 project employees, with instruction in English and Spanish.
The effort drew praise—and the 2005 Outstanding Safety Contribution Award—from OSHA. Following the program, construction on DFW’s expansion ultimately comprised “…21 million man-hours without a fatality or serious incident, while consistently maintaining an accident incident rate below the national average,” as the OSHA citation reads. GCs Austin Commercial, Inc. and Hensel Phelps (HP) administered the program, and HP has produced other such programs through its own regional offices. Nancy Novak, Chief Innovation Officer of Compass Datacenters, was there as Hensel Phelps’ Operations Manager.
“Hensel Phelps actually offered classes to all divisions, for their tradespersons who were ESL,” Nancy says. “I know in the Mid Atlantic Division we put lots of trades through the classes who went on to become foremen and superintendents for the firm. I’ve always been very proud of this program.”
The New Normal
As the COVID-19 threat continues to make its way around the world and through our collective ranks, we’ll adapt to the new normal until such time as the emergency has passed. And in the wake of the COVID-19 calamity, maybe we’ll adopt a deliberate post-COVID new normal—our lasting takeaway from a global health scare whose ultimate effect will be to unite us. For the moment, it’s more important than ever that our inclusivity efforts drive inclusivity of information conveyance, through more thoughtful and involved means than the industry has ever undertaken. The COVID-19 moment demands it, and could usher in a new era––one of those boat-lifting tides we keep hearing about. Nancy Novak knows.
It’s more important than ever that our inclusivity efforts drive inclusivity of information conveyance, through more thoughtful and involved means than the industry has ever undertaken.
“One of my favorite superintendents—Fabian Martinez-Bonilla—was just on a Compass Datacenter project,” Nancy Novak says. “As it happened, Hensel Phelps was the GC on that Compass project. When Fabian saw me, he turned to his crew to tell them about the first time he met me, and he told a lovely story about leadership.” She pauses, remembering.
“It was a project that we were down to the wire to finish, and I, along with my husband and the whole crew, worked all night to turn the project over by morning. It was part of the DFW airport project. Fabian remembers me going to get everyone Starbucks to show support and build morale. I could not believe he remembered that story—and it made me reflect on how small actions can make big impressions.”