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Overcoming Language Barriers

Avoid the costs of miscommunication
By Janet Aird


There can be costs when employers and employees don't speak the same language. When employees misunderstand information, the results can be far more serious than poorly done work. Employers can face legal problems with state or federal governments for not complying with safety regulations, and employees can be injured, or worse.

To avoid these situations, one side of the equation has to be bilingual, says Guadalupe Sandoval, founder of Sandoval Bilingual Safety Solutions, a consulting and training organization in Sacramento, Calif.

"Bilingual communication skills are particularly needed by the supervisory staff, as they generally tend to be the conduit of information between English-speaking employers and Spanish-speaking workers," Sandoval says. Employers, trainers and other staff members may also need to communicate with Spanish-speaking workers.

Field workers are hired for their ability to perform the needed labor, he says, and for employers, the critical issue is that they learn how to perform their work functions properly and safely.


Guadalupe Sandoval says that for employers, the critical issue is that field workers learn how to perform their work functions properly and safely.
Photo by Howard Rosenberg.

On the other hand, newly hired field workers also have to understand information including compensation, work rules, reporting work injuries, and other important policies and procedures, and this is best done in the language the workers understand, he adds. Most employers provide an orientation, and many offer it in both languages.


Harvesting leaf lettuce. When supervisors have strong communication skills, workers are able to carry out their responsibilities more efficiently and effectively.
Photo by Jeff Vanuga, courtesy of NRCS Photo Gallery.

The communication problem increases when the information is written. While some workers are highly educated, many have very limited or no reading or writing skills. Employee handbooks, required notices and other written information should always be accompanied by verbal explanations, he says.

Effective communication

"Communication is tricky, and effective communication is even more complicated," Sandoval says. "There are issues such as body language, tone of voice and eye contact."

In addition, it's crucial that bilingual employees be fluently bilingual. "Too many know just enough Spanish to be dangerous," he says.

The first step for trainers is to tell the workers what to do, and then ask open-ended questions to ensure that they've understood.

"The workers often get part of the message, but asking them if they understood doesn't work, as they will not want to appear dumb or to have not paid attention," he explains. Latino workers, especially, may be prone to nodding in affirmation, because they want to be respectful of authority.

"When I do heat illness prevention training, I'll ask questions such as, 'How much water is recommended that you drink when working in warm environments?' or 'What are some of the symptoms of heat illness?' or 'What should you do if you experience symptoms of heat illness, or if you see a co-worker with signs of heat illness?'" Sandoval says.

The next step is to show them how to perform the task.

"If you want a worker to learn how to perform specific tasks, it helps to explain things to them verbally, but it's more effective when you have them learn by doing. If I want a tractor operator to learn how to inspect a tractor properly, I would do it by showing him or her critical inspection points, then have them go around the tractor and perform the inspection," he explains. "If I want to teach a respirator wearer how to perform positive and negative pressure fit checks on the respirator, we both don our respirators, then I show them and have them follow along and do the same."

The last step is to enforce the training and provide feedback on their performance. "Hopefully it's positive feedback, with some corrective language if needed," Sandoval says.

These kinds of communication tend to be one-sided, he adds. It's also important for trainers and others to ensure that they've understood any questions the workers have asked them. If they aren't sure, they should ask for clarification.

English language training

There are a number of ways for employers to help their employees learn English.


Guadalupe Sandoval, of Sandoval Bilingual Safety Solutions, at the Ag Supervision Development Program at the annual AgSafe Conference in Monterey, Calif., in 2008.
Photo by Howard Rosenberg.

"Some compensate workers and supervisors for attending English language classes at local adult education programs. These are not always very popular, as workers are generally exhausted at the end of the workday and not inclined to leave their homes to go to school," Sandoval says.

Some employers provide access to software programs such as Rosetta Stone and Berlitz on company computers, which employees can use during work hours. Some have instructors come to the workplace to teach English language classes.

Enterprise Vineyards, a vineyard management company in Sonoma, Calif., has chosen this route. "Because we bill labor to clients, we are considered farm labor contractors," says Ditty Vella, who is in administration and accounts payable.

Enterprise Vineyards grows grapes organically (and some biodynamically) on a total of about 600 acres for approximately 45 client vineyards. Almost all are in the Sonoma Valley. They have some 65 of their own employees, 12 of them in management. In the busy season they hire an additional 35 contractor employees. Enterprise provides bilingual orientations and safety meetings.

"We have a fair number of Spanish speakers in management," Vella says. "To communicate with our office, we prefer that they have some English skills."


English language students and their teacher at Enterprise Vineyards.
Photo courtesy of Ditty Vella.

Tractor drivers also have to be bilingual. "We need to be able to communicate with the tractor drivers, because they use sprays," she says, and the office has to convey crucial information about applications, such as the kinds and amounts of spray, tractor speeds, times and dates.

Enterprise Vineyards has been providing English language classes to some of its workers for the past five years. Most of those years were through the local adult school, but when it lost funding, they hired one of the teachers.

"Phil [Coturri], the owner of Enterprise, is bilingual," Vella says. "He has always liked to promote from within, to give these guys an opportunity to come up in the world."

Learning English is not for everyone, she adds. "In general, a lot of these workers have kids, and they depend on their kids to translate for them at home."

Sandoval's mother, who has been in California for more than 60 years, still speaks very limited English. "My mother has been employed in agriculture and food processing plants without any major problems," he notes. "Her supervisors all spoke sufficient Spanish to help her along. At home she has Spanish-language television to watch, and most of the merchants and service providers have Spanish-speaking staff."

The classes in speaking, reading and writing at Enterprise Vineyards have been held once a week before work from January to March, when they have to stop because work in the vineyards begins to pick up. In 2012, they also offered a class after work. "Four guys took us up on that after an eight or nine-hour day," Vella says.

Workers have to be invited to the classes. Two long-term students who joined the company's management team choose the candidates. There are criteria to remain in the classes, including not missing more than two of them.

Enterprise is still fine-tuning the classes.

"We have these guys who have just taken off after three years," she says. "Last year we split the class and had the stars teach the other guys, and the teacher teach the stars."

Unfortunately, some of those who haven't learned as quickly became discouraged. "If they aren't going to be first, they lose interest. This time we're going to have two classes. We want to catch some of the guys who fell by the wayside."

This year there will be 17 students in the two classes, one for beginners and one advanced.

"We're thrilled with it," Vella says. "I so admire these guys for stepping up and joining the English-speaking world. It says to me that they really intend to make their lives here."

The author is a freelance writer based in Altadena, Calif.