Finding a common language in safety

Our project sites’ increasing diversity is providing a great need – and a great opportunity – to develop effective ways of communicating with workers speaking limited or no English. Bridging any language divide is particularly critical regarding safety.

Our Pegasus Park project team in South Florida faced both of these challenges, as 38 craft workers came from China to assemble the project’s centerpiece: a 110-foot-tall statue of the mythological Pegasus stallion fighting a fire-breathing dragon. Those workers – there to perform specialized work – only spoke Chinese.

Given those circumstances, how did our team develop a strong project safety culture, and what was most helpful to the Chinese workers regarding that? Below, we hear from Analyn Nunez, Skanska’s environment, health and safety coordinator who is responsible for day-to-day safety leadership on the project site. Following that, Wei Ensheng, a project manager with trade contractor Yuda, shares his thoughts on the project’s safety culture through Li Yang, a translator.


This team worked safely despite language differences (from left): Li Yang (translator), Analyn Nunez (Skanska EHS coordinator), Wei Ensheng (Yuda project manager) and Chai Weibin (translator).

Skanska’s Analyn Nunez

What has been key to ensuring safety on this project? 

Communication is most important. So that the Chinese workers complied with all safety requirements, we found it was crucial to have at least two translators on the job site every day. But just having translators isn’t enough. Instead, we have worked to build positive relationships with the translators – they’ve become part of my safety team. Numerous times I’ve walked the site with them to train them and show them what I look for on my inspections. By seeing me doing safety walks with the translators, it’s clear to the Chinese workers that safety is Skanska’s top priority. Also, the translators have been amazing at assisting in all new worker orientations, as well as with various safety trainings.

How do you keep the project’s native Chinese speakers engaged on safety?

Stretch and Flex has become a key time to communicate with the Chinese employees. After these pre-work morning group exercises, I always – with the help of the translators – talk to the whole crew to share with them any safety issues that I might have observed or any safety topics that need to be addressed. Additionally, l continually walk the jobsite each day, and for those I make sure at least one of the translators is present in case we need to address any safety issues.

Being bilingual with English and Spanish helps me interact with different cultures and languages. On previous jobs, I’ve found that when safety forms are in workers’ native language, communication increases between the crews and Skanska as construction manager. What I mean by this is that if a translator fills out the pre-task plan, often the rest of the crew isn’t involved – that’s not good, as with work conditions changing every day, everyone’s input is needed. At Pegasus Park, we had all the safety forms translated to Chinese and Spanish to get all trade workers involved. Beyond increased understanding of what we’re asking the teams to do, this helps create conversations between the crews.

How do you make sure native Chinese speakers feel like they can share their safety concerns effectively?

I have tried to establish personal relationships with the workers, and I have taken the time to learn such simple Chinese words as those for hi, thank you, great job and safety – although the workers need to remind me of the correct pronunciations every day! But by doing this, I have opened a channel of communication: If they see me walking on the site, they will smile at me and start pointing at all their safety equipment, showing me that they are in compliance. At the same time, when I have a safety concern and there is no translator around, by using hand signals and pictures on my iPhone I try to explain what’s wrong and how to fix it. Trust me, communicating this way is not easy, but I can manage to get my point across.

Most importantly, by making an effort to get to know the workers, they know if they have a safety concern, all they have to do is go get the translator and find me. We have spent numerous times creating pre-task plans together, translating all safety forms and planning their work with other trade contractors.

Anything else you would like to share about this effort?

The Chinese employees on the Pegasus jobsite are role models. They have taken to heart the Skanska Injury-Free Environment® culture, especially how everyone on site needs to look out for each other. Even though the Chinese can’t directly speak with the other crews – those speaking English, German and Spanish – you’ll see the Chinese smiling and opening lines of communication by using their smart phones. They’ll speak into the phone, and the translate app will convert their words to English or another language. It’s amazing: They have figured out not only how to communicate, but also how to become part of the team.

Walking around the site, it’s great to see people of such different cultures laughing and working together! That, to me, is very satisfying, because at the end of the day the IFE culture is making sure all workers go home safely at the end of the day. And I can assure you the relationships that have been built on the Pegasus Park project will make this happen: We have each other’s back.


Chinese team members plan to continue doing Stretch and Flex when they return to China.

Yuda’s Wei Ensheng

How is safety generally viewed on commercial construction sites in China?

In China, while people pay a lot of attention to safety issues, enforcement is a lot less strict than here in America. There aren’t full-time safety specialists walking around.

Also in China, safety equipment generally includes hard hats, gloves, harnesses, steel-toe boots and glasses. But there, safety glasses typically aren’t worn all the time, and certainly not under welding helmets and face shields as we have to do here at Pegasus Park. And the harnesses are usually fixed lanyards, like ropes: unlike in the U.S., retractable lines that absorb impacts aren’t used.

Also, scaffolding is safer and of better quality in the U.S. Scaffolds in China are sometimes made out of bamboo planks and steel pipes, and they don’t have to be fully planked to work on as they are here.

Did you find it helpful to have the pre-task plan and other forms translated into Chinese?

That was very helpful. It helps us communicate with each other before starting work and helps us plan better.

What was your first impression of Stretch and Flex?

It was a little weird at the beginning. Now, we’re used to it. In China, we only clean the site before starting work for the day.

Are there any safety practices from Pegasus Park that you hope to continue using back in China?

I want to apply your standards for working in confined spaces. In China, there are no strict requirements for ventilation in closed spaces. It’s mostly that if a worker going inside a confined space feels that something is wrong, then a fan is installed. But there are not air quality monitors like here in the U.S.

Also, I will emphasize safety requirements during pre-task planning as you do here. In China, we do pre-task planning but it focuses on carrying out the work to be done.

And Stretch and Flex is very impressive. I will do this back in China.

Are there any Chinese approaches to safety that could benefit us here in the U.S.?

There’s some good to be had in how China is more flexible regarding safety. For example, when we got here we were required to wear a Tyvek body suit while applying patina chemicals to the statue’s bronze exterior. That caused us to sweat all the time, making it hard for us to do our job. We were grateful that Skanska was open to further studying this risk, and we ended up being able to wear our thinner welding jackets instead.


Skanska USA

Skanska USA

Skanska USA is one of the largest, most financially sound construction and development companies in the U.S., serving a broad range of clients in the public and private sectors, including those in transportation, power, industrial, water/wastewater, healthcare, life science, education, sports & entertainment, data centers, government, aviation and commercial industries.

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{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Daimon Perez September 16, 2014, 8:53 pm

    Great job, congratulation to the whole team!!!!


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