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How to Speak Safety in a Diverse Industry

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Some of the most vulnerable workers on any construction site are those from culturally diverse backgrounds, according to SafeWork NSW.

Both new migrant workers and those whose first language is not English are reportedly concentrated in high-risk work environments including construction. Furthermore, in these types of jobs, they are the workers most likely to be injured.

The SafeWork NSW At Risk Workers Strategy aims to address some of the challenges so that safety messaging gets through to these Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) workers.

Building a Bridge of Trust

Dr Philip Groves, managing director of risk and safety advisory JOPL, tells Jobsite one of the main issues he has identified through his work with SafeWork NSW and others is that CALD communities may display “significant mistrust” towards official messaging.

“This may be because of the political context in their home countries but is often related to the lack of respect they perceive in overly simplistic safety messaging,” he explained.

Just because someone does not speak English does not mean they have poor comprehension! – Dr Philip Groves

His consultancy undertakes Tier 1 construction safety auditing for government projects. His own background as a lawyer and PhD in workers compensation, on the other hand, gives him some specialist insight into the challenges.

Diversifying Safety Information

Most safety messaging and safety-related information in Australia is produced and delivered in English. Similarly, the Australian Standards and National Construction Code are in English. However, our workforce is poly-lingual and multicultural.

Finding approaches that do not rely on English literacy also benefits workers with literacy issues, conditions like dyslexia or are coming into construction from other sectors and may be still unfamiliar with the specific terminology and basic practices.

Groves points out that many head contractors or contractor owners have a CALD background. Therefore, they can face difficulties in understanding safety requirements and their own workers’ needs.

He explains how each worker perceives and manages risks differently. That’s why in a recent project, he said, he focused on developing resources that would transcend the language and culture barrier.

Prioritising Safety First

It is not enough to just the photos on the posters and websites more reflective of cultural diversity. Groves believes that achieving better practice requires an understanding of the “cultural appetite for safety.”

“For example, if a group of workers comes from a culture that prioritises speed and efficiency over safety, no poster or induction will shake that belief out of the workers’ heads,” he said.

Best practice involves including a CALD column in a site risk register, to think through potential implications of each risk for those who are not familiar with such risks. – Dr Philip Groves

Things to consider might include whether a worker has used scaffolding and whether they know how to climb it safely and correctly. Common sense is culturally contextual.

The Solution Isn’t Clear

Technology may not be the answer either. For example, if workers are encouraged to use an app to report a hazard, that will only work if they understand what hazards should be reported.

Research has also shown that CALD workers are also often reluctant to report hazards due to fear of losing their job or losing their work visa. They may also come from a culture where questioning authority is frowned on.

“Until technology can qualitative analyse knowledge gaps… it will be limited in its value in this space,” Groves said.

The construction industry could learn from the advertising industry how to better understand and reach a specific audience.

“Advertising understands its audience. That’s why Indian audiences are targeted through cinema advertising—they watch movies as families more often,” Groves observed.

Meanwhile, Chinese audiences are targeted through an emphasis on family and obligations to family in TV advertising.

“Why don’t we seem to appreciate such nuances with safety messaging?”

A Change from The Bottom Up

Currently, so much safety communication approaches CALD communities as if they are white people with poor comprehension skills, Groves said.

“The whole thing needs to change. Cultural awareness training needs to be prioritised. I can’t tell you how many construction companies with whom I work believe the solution is making the ‘foreigners’ learn to speak English. That’s the attitude out there—it’s wrong, it’s out of date, but it is the status quo.

“There are racially-segregated conclaves of industry and ownership. We need to accept this and work with it. Head contractors need to be aware of their workers and their backgrounds and meet their needs accordingly.”

If you liked this article, here are a few eBookswebinars, and case studies you may enjoy:

The Future of Construction Safety

Building Empathy – Understanding the diversity of different generations in the workplace

LT McGuinness Study


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