The melting pot that is America finds people from different cultures working together, particularly on construction sites.
While early immigrants were usually from Italy, Ireland, Poland and other European countries, today's non-native workers are most likely to come from Mexico and other Hispanic countries. Concrete contractors are faced with the challenge of blending the best of the traditional American work ethic with the work practices of these newer arrivals.
It might seem that speaking different languages would be the main source of communication difficulties on the job. But consultant Chris Krueger of Zerah Services Inc. attributes only 30 percent of misunderstandings to language, with 70 percent caused by cultural differences. He blames power distances for many miscommunications between workers and supervisors. "That has to do with how you interact with your boss," he explains. "If you're born in the U.S., you're expected to speak up and state your opinion if you have one. That will never happen in a meeting with workers from Mexico, Central and South America.
If the boss says, 'Did you understand?', they're going to shake their head 'yes' even if they don't. We call it 'Why does yes mean no?' It's really a cultural issue — you don't contradict the boss. You (the supervisor) need to observe to see if what you said is taking place (on the job) to be sure they understand or look to see if the light's on in their eyes."
Making sure workers understand is an important part of the supervisor's job, says Trademark Concrete Systems, Inc. General Superintendent Art Rodriguez.
"The fear of being reprimanded or called dumb will give (Hispanic) workers a tendency to say 'yes, yes, yes' when in actuality they only understand 50 percent of what was said," he says. "The foreman might catch them doing something they were told not to and will work with them on a one to one basis to correct it."
By having only bilingual field superintendents, Trademark Concrete has reduced language problems on its jobsites. What they have unexpectedly encountered is resistance to learning English from some Spanish speaking employees. Even though the company has offered free home tutoring and made clear that higher paid promotions to supervisor are only possible for English speakers, many employees who agree to take the classes don't follow through.
"I think they know that because they're working for a company that can understand what they're saying, they don't take (learning English) that seriously," notes Rodriguez. "Their mind is still back where they came from. If they worked in another state where there were fewer Hispanic businesses, they might feel there was no way out of this thing."
Occupational Safety and Health Administration statistics show that a non-English speaking person is five times more likely to suffer an on-the-job accident than someone born in the United States, Krueger notes. That is the case even when companies have spent many thousands of dollars translating safety materials into Spanish. Since many workers from other countries have only six years of formal education, written safety information is unlikely to be read and even less likely to be understood. To compensate, supervisors "have to spend more time showing and telling in the job site environment," he says.
Structural Group recognized the need for Spanish language safety training in the late 1980s when they realized that in some geographic areas, 60 percent of their employees could not understand the weekly safety meetings, which were then held only in English. "Working effectively and safely in highly hazardous environments, such as confined spaces, chemical plants, high rise buildings, bridges or elevated structures, becomes very challenging when employees cannot fully understand the language," Safety Director Jim Emmons says. "We need employees to do the work but Structural Group cannot put employees into a situation where they do not understand how to work in a safe manner.