Construction Concerns: Languages

Article and photos by Greg Havel

Emergency medical service responders in many municipalities are familiar with the language issues that may be present when communicating with the patient, relatives, and bystanders. EMS responders often have applications in their smartphones that can provide translations from English to many other languages, and from these other languages into English. Although they are not as effective as a fluent interpreter, they have value as a communications aid.

Responders to a fire or other emergency at a construction or remodeling job site can be faced with the same language issues, as many construction workers today may speak English only as their second language, or no English at all.

Construction site sign


Asbestos warning in English and Spanish


Photo 1 shows the OSHA-required sign in English on an enclosure for asbestos abatement. Photo 2 shows a bilingual sign on an enclosure for asbestos removal from another job site.

Job site signs and posters can be the first indication that languages other than English may be needed to communicate with workers during an emergency response. Photo 3 shows a bilingual sign on a remodeling job, at the entrance to the work area from the owner-occupied part of the building.

Construction area sign in English and Spanish


The OSHA “It’s the Law” poster (free downloads at must be displayed in English at all workplaces and construction job sites; and in other languages that are understood by the workers. In addition to English, this poster is available from OSHA in Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Haitian, Korean, Nepali, Polish, Portuguese, and Vietnamese. This poster has also been translated into other languages when needed, including French, Italian, Russian, Ukranian, Hmong, and Greek.

On one midwestern construction and remodeling job site recently, these languages were represented:

  • English: spoken and understood by more than half of the workers
  • Spanish: spoken and understood by the asbestos abatement crew; the drywall board installers and tapers; some of the laborers and carpenters; and the landscaping crew.
  • Polish: spoken and understood by the crew installing the slate roof
  • Russian: spoken and understood by the consulting engineer’s representative on site
  • French: spoken and understood by the technicians from Quebec (Canada) who were installing the imported carillon system
  • Italian: spoken and understood by the painters, decorators, and plasterers
  • Ukranian: spoken and understood by the stucco installers
  • German: spoken and understood by the installers of the imported stained-glass windows

While many of the speakers of languages other than English understood and spoke some English, others did not. On some of the crews, the foreman was bilingual. One of the crews used a translator from another subcontractor to communicate with the project manager and superintendent. And another crew used a cell phone to contact its office staff when an interpreter was needed.

In addition to providing an overview of the construction materials and methods used on the project, tours of construction job sites can suggest to emergency responders that there may be a language barrier during an emergency response, as well as which languages for which they may need interpreters.

Download this article as a PDF HERE (289 KB).

Greg HavelGregory Havel is a member of the Town of Burlington (WI) Fire Department; retired deputy chief and training officer; and a 35-year veteran of the fire service. He is a Wisconsin-certified fire instructor II, fire officer II, and fire inspector; an adjunct instructor in fire service programs at Gateway Technical College; and safety director for Scherrer Construction Co., Inc. Havel has a bachelor’s degree from St. Norbert College; has more than 35 years of experience in facilities management and building construction; and has presented classes at FDIC.



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