You Said What?

By David H. Glabe, P.E. / April 23, 2007

Two recent events compelled me to write this article.  One event was a newspaper article that discussed the future of education of our children; the second event was an experience that occurred on a jobsite that I never imagined could happen.  Both of these events involved language, or perhaps a better way of saying it, communicating with others.

This is not a new topic but it is, as far as I am concerned, quickly reaching a critical point in construction.  Before you assume that I am biased, stubborn, or inconsiderate, let me clarify that I am not bashing anybody, any nationality, any culture, or any country.  However, the situation is getting out of control and it will affect you, no matter what your nationality, ancestry, background, religion or ethnicity may be.

What happened on the jobsite?  Well, I was called to a job where shoring equipment was being installed in a mechanical room to support a floor above.  As you can imagine, there was quite a bit of congestion due to the piping and the ductwork that could not be removed.  I explained to the erectors how they were to install the equipment in a particularly nasty area, using what I thought was normal language, including typical scaffold jargon and terms.  When I finished I asked if everybody understood and if there were any questions.  The erectors nodded that they understood and no, there were no questions.  As I walked away to look at another area, the salesman came up to me and said what I thought was pretty amazing.  He suggested that I keep my language simple and not use such big words.  He wondered how much the erectors understood and suggested that maybe they were being polite by not asking questions.  Frankly, I didn’t think I was using “big words.”  I found it, and still find it, amazing that I have to carefully eliminate “big” words so those I talk to can understand me.  And before you get excited, I was not using big complicated engineering terms; I wouldn’t expect others to know more than what is expected of them.  But come on, if I can’t communicate at an eighth grade level, how low must we go?

The second event was a newspaper article that discussed education.  It claimed that, according to U.S. government figures:  “By 2025, one of every four students in this country’s public school system is expected to initially be limited in English proficiency.”   That is downright frightening.  But that of course begs the question:  Will they be able to read any language?  Some years ago, at a SIA Committee Week meeting, the topic of translating the Codes of Safe Practice into other languages was being discussed.  One individual pointed out that there were many dialects of each language and how would that be addressed.  Good observation.  The second observation was more profound.  The speaker pointed out that we are assuming that the worker can read any language, whether it is English or not.  This is scary.  How can we do anything about safety if we cannot communicate in any language?  How does the employee do her job if she cannot read or comprehend?

I remember being in a hotel in Japan several years ago.  While brushing my teeth, I looked at the top of the mirror and there was a safety label.  It looked pretty important so I stopped brushing to see what I was being warned about.  To this day, I have no idea what it said because it was in Japanese.  All I could discern was that it was yellow with red writing and an exclamation point.  If I had this much trouble in the bathroom, what must it be like for an individual who cannot read or comprehend the signs on a construction site?

What are we to do?  For starters, I suggest that, if the SIA is going to be an international organization, the codes should be translated into multiple foreign languages, not just Spanish.  This will at least promote safety for those individuals who cannot read English but can read another language.  Secondly, we must all start speaking the same language.  Frankly, I don’t care which language although you must admit that English does have a precedent.  Thomas Jefferson wasn’t wrong, insisting that this country should be united under one language; he recognized the pitfalls of multiple languages.  Third, we all have a stake in education.  We must insist that our children be properly educated.  Fourth and here is the really tough one because it requires cooperation between government, employers, employees, and you and me.  We must insist that people learn English, or whatever language we think we should be speaking.  Fifth, it’s time for the individual to take personal responsibility for their safety.  This includes being able to read safety labels, understand instructions, and communicate in a common language.

Will I find it necessary to learn Russian, Korean and Spanish so others won’t have to learn English?  Will it be necessary to dumb down the process to the lowest possible level so we won’t need education?  How do we dumb down a process and still achieve safety?  Stick pictures go only so far.  It is often said that scaffolding is not rocket science.  That may be true, but it’s still a human being doing the work, and we all have a right to a safe work environment no matter what language we speak.  However, if we cannot communicate, we’ll have neither safety nor work.

Tags: job site education language translations OSHA Standards & Regulations Resources scaffolding language

Previous Post How Important are Employees?
Next Post Goals and Other Nonsense

David H. Glabe, P.E.

See what David H. Glabe has to say about construction engineering and the scaffolding industry.