How safe is a construction site if you can’t read English?

Safety signs at a construction site

For Construction Safety Week, we look at the risks for workers who have difficulty reading safety information

Safety documentation helps workers to do things correctly and safely on construction sites. It also helps them to understand how they can avoid or prevent incidents.

But what happens when workers don’t have English as their first language? Although they’ll understand signs, can they always understand other safety information? Between 2009 and 2016, non-Irish nationals accounted for 12% of all construction-related fatal incidents.

We don’t know how many of these were related to a difficulty in understanding safety instructions. But a study by the Health and Safety Authority found that when non-Irish national workers have poor English-language skills, they can be at increased risk. It noted that if non-native speakers don’t understand, they ‘may not feel able to ask questions or raise concerns’.

This lack of two-way communication can have significant consequences, particularly for construction sites with zero tolerance of risk. It’s essential that all workers fully understand risk assessments and safety instructions – and feel confident enough to speak up when they don’t.

The research found that only 50% of non‐Irish workers had ever studied English: ‘Translation support (e.g. through colleagues) is often available, but in emergency situations workers with poorer English could be at greater risk’. Not studying English in a formal setting could mean that foreign workers who speak the language quite fluently may find reading more difficult.

This looks likely to become a bigger issue as the number of foreign workers is set to increase. IBEC recently noted that over 60,000 workers will be needed to meet government construction targets. We can expect that many of these will come from non-English speaking countries.

But it’s not only foreign workers who could have difficulty in reading. One in six people in Ireland has literacy problems, so they have difficulty reading instructions on a medicine bottle. Construction workers with literacy issues may have difficulty in reading safety information on the job – and an employer might not realise.

Yet employers have a legal obligation to ensure workers understand information. The Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 states: ‘When giving information to employees, employers must ensure that it is given in such appropriate form, manner and language that it is likely to be understood by the employees concerned’.

One way of helping all construction workers to understand information easily is to write in plain English.

Plain English means writing in a way that users can understand the first time they read it. Using plain English language and layout for safety information could help to reduce risk for all construction workers.

Examples of plain English

Before: Comprehension of safety standards is critical for everyone.
After: Everyone must be able to understand safety standards.

Before: Scaffolding must be placed on solid footing.
After: Place scaffolding on solid footing.

Next blog in this series: Ten tips on how to write in plain English for construction workers

Plain English Ireland is supporting Construction Safety Week 2019