NSC: Communicating with Spanish-Speaking Workers

For employers faced with the challenge of communicating safety to an increasing number of Spanish-speaking workers in the United States, one expert offers the following message: "You don't have to speak Spanish to communicate with a Spanish-speaking work force."

"I'm not saying don't learn Spanish or not offer (Spanish-speaking) workers ESL courses," explained Hector Escarcega, president of the Los Angeles-based consulting and training firm Bilingual Solutions International. "What I am saying is don't wait to learn Spanish or for them to learn English to state the case about the importance of safety."

Escarcega, who spoke at the National Safety Council's 2006 Congress and Expo, noted that many of the communication difficulties that exist between employers and foreign workers not only stem from language barriers but also from cultural gaps. He asserted that in order to relate well to the Latino work force, managers and supervisors have to relate to them on a personal level.

"In order to understand where [Latino workers] are coming from, you have to make the effort to learn about their traditions, values and culture," he said.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2005 was a peak year for workplace fatalities among Latino workers, with 917 Hispanic employees dying on the job, according to BLS. The majority of those fatalities were among workers who worked in transportation and in construction.

Latino Workers Can't Say No

Escarcega explained that many of the Latinos who come to the United States come with a limited education, often being illiterate in their own language. In addition, since many come for economic reasons, they are desperate to take whatever job is available and often don't pay attention to the risks involved or if they have had training in that particular industry.

Also, Escarcega pointed out that Latinos are often reluctant to challenge authority, which means they may agree to do unsafe jobs, or not stop co-workers from risky behavior. Escarcega also suggested that because workers don't want to seem "stupid," they say "yes" to everything a manager or supervisor tells them – even though they may not have understood what was explained to them.

This cultural aversion to saying "no" may well be one factor behind the high fatality rates for Hispanic workers, Escarcega said.

Escarcega: Body Language Says a Lot

To overcome many of the challenges, Escarcega offers the following tips to close the cultural gap and a forge a better understanding between employer and the Latino worker:

  • Get to know workers on a "one-on-one" basis by calling them by name and smiling at them.
  • Offer the worker positive feedback.
  • Accept and be flexible with cultural differences.
  • Provide hands-on training and use props.
  • Use few words and many pictures on training materials and handouts.
  • Offer workers ESL classes.
  • Use slang and correct Spanish.
  • Find a reputable translation company that knows the industry and the Latino culture well.

The most important tip of all, Escarcega said, is using appropriate body language to communicate with a Spanish-speaking worker. Sending contradictory signals (i.e., body language that contradicts verbal instruction) could be a big mistake if a supervisor or manager wants to earn the worker's trust.

"Make sure your words are congruent with your body language," he stressed. "Otherwise you may end up wasting your resources."

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