EU Enlargement has seen Ireland absorb more migrant workers than any other EU state, with non-nationals constituting 8% (159,300) of the total workforce in Ireland.
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A report conducted by AIB Global Treasury in February of this year found that 31% of non-national workers come from the EU Accession States.
In fact, 9% of non-nationals or 22,600 migrant workers in Ireland are employed in the construction sector, almost double the 2005 figure.
56% of the non-national workers in construction come from the Accession States with the majority of PPS numbers being issued to migrants from Poland (54%), followed by Lithuania (18%), Latvia (9%) and Slovakia (8%).
Easy as it is to simply label all migrant workers as non–Irish national workers, the real distinction must be made by dividing that large group into non-Irish national and non-English speaking workers, as this is where the main concern for contractors should lie.
Figures from the CSO suggest that most non-Irish national workers do not have English as a first language, with 26,000 or 38% of immigrants in 2005 coming from the ten Accession States.
Unsurprisingly, the Wave 63.4 of the Barometer survey carried out in 25 EU Member States revealed that the mother tongue of the majority EU citizens is the national language of their country, not English.
100% of respondents in Poland name Polish as their mother tongue, and 99% of the respondents in Greece, Cyprus and Hungary name their national languages, which raises the question how is the Irish employment market accommodating these communication requirements?
H.S.A. statistics reveal the overall fatality rate for migrant workers last year was higher than for that of Irish national workers, with migrant workers in the construction sector at a particular risk of fatal injury.
Worryingly, these figures suggest a disturbing emerging trend and have obliged the H.S.A to call on all employers to ensure they are adequately communicating the risks and providing appropriate safety training for all employees, including those who are non-English speaking.
The safety threat has not escaped H.S.A. Chief Executive Tom Beegan, “Provisional figures indicate a worrying trend in the number of non-nationals who have died at work so far this year .”
Mr. Beegan has good reason to be worried with three of the seven fatalities among migrant workers last year occurring in the construction industry.
In an effort to address these pressing safety issues, the Health and Safety Authority has been working on a programme of information resources aimed at non-English speakers and specific provisions relating to such workers are now included in the new Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act, 2005.
Recognising the importance of migrant labour to the Irish economy Tom Beegan points out that the safety onus is firmly on the employer, “we are encouraging employers to protect this asset by providing safety information and training in a manner, form and language that is likely to be understood by those workers who do not speak English.”
The apparent communication breakdown between Irish employers and migrant workers creates an imminent threat to the health and safety of this sector and as Beegan points out, “It is not good enough to simply pass on the message. Employers must satisfy themselves that the message is hitting home as indeed they would with any other employee”.
As the H.S.A. Chief Executive maintains “it is the duty of every employer to ensure the health and safety of all those working for an enterprise, regardless of nationality or language issues. It is critical that employers show this duty of care to non-national workers and make sure that safety concerns are clearly and properly communicated to all staff.”
Employers can no longer afford to be lax when it comes to safety communications with the advent of the latest piece of safety legislation, the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005.
In effect since September last year, this major new piece of legislation aims to prevent injuries and deaths in the workplace and sets out the duties of employers and workers alike.
It clearly highlights the responsibilities of other parties such as the designers of workplaces and work equipment and the suppliers of goods for use on construction sites.
Section 9 (1) of the Safety, Health & Welfare at Work Act (2005) states:
Without prejudice to the generality of section 8, every employer shall, when providing information to his or her employees under that section on matters relating to their safety, health and welfare at work ensure that the information –
(a) is given in a form, manner and, as appropriate, language that is reasonably likely to be understood by the employees concerned, and
(b) includes the following information –
(i) the hazards to safety, health and welfare at work and the risks identified by the risk assessment,
(ii) the protective and preventive measures to be taken concerning safety, health and welfare at work under the relevant statutory provisions in respect of the place of work and each specific task to be performed at the place of work, and
(iii) the names of persons designated under section 11 and of safety representatives selected under section 25, if any.
Section 10 (1) of the Safety, Health & Welfare at Work Act (2005) states:
Without prejudice to the generality of section 8 and having regard to sections 25 and 26, every employer shall, when providing instruction, training and supervision to his or her employees in relation to their safety, health and welfare at work, ensure that –
(a) Instruction, training and supervision is provided in a form, manner and, as appropriate, language that is reasonably likely to be understood by the employee concerned.
Section 10 (1) of the Safety, Health & Welfare at Work Act (2005) states:
Every employer shall bring the safety statement, in a form, manner and, as appropriate, language that is reasonably likely to be understood, to the attention of
(a) his or her employees, at least annually and, at any other time, following its amendment in accordance with this section,
(b) newly-recruited employees upon commencement of employment, and
(c) other persons at the place of work who may be exposed to any specific risk to which the safety statement applies.
In short what the act really means for Irish employers is that they are now obliged by law to prevent any form of an accident at the workplace by taking appropriate and clearly defined safety measures particularly when it comes to migrant workers.
These measures relate first and foremost to the linguistic aspect of employment of non-nationals within Irish companies, meaning that employers need to get on-site signage and safety statements translated into the worker’s mother tongue, and fast.
WHAT THE WORKERS SAY
Expert Language Solutions through its work in the construction industry has conducted a six-month market research prototype focusing on comprehension and communication on construction sites.
The research involving 160 Polish workers monthly, presented respondents with generic industry signage.
Each participant was presented with a blue and white sign, which is mandatory on Irish construction sites and displays an exclamation mark and a note underneath printed in English: “Only persons with roof work permit are allowed on this roof”.
The participants were asked to explain what they would have to do if they came across this sign on a construction site.
On the average, none of the respondents was able to reply, even partially.
They were unable to reply because they could not read the safety sign as it was in English.
With signage predominately in English on sites throughout Ireland it is likely these types of situations occur on site every day leading to accidents and perhaps now even legal action. And workers admit, “We would not have a slightest idea what this sign means if we came across it on a construction site. We’d have no clue whatsoever”.
SAFETY LAPSES ON SITE
Under the new legislation there are a number of cases pending and various incidents are constantly being reported.
In June 2006 an incident took place within a telecom contracting company employing 30 Polish workers and 50 Irish workers.
Two Polish workers capable of communicating in English were working at heights while a far less experienced Polish worker was engaged to provide earthing and do the snagging on the ground level.
Quality control inspectors who had arrived onto the site instructed him and the worker nodded his head in apparent understanding.
Asked to earth a cable ladder to a monopole, the worker mistakenly drilled a hole in the monopole creating a dangerous safety situation.
Noticing his mistake the English-speaking workers rectified the situation quickly and covered their fellow workers mistake before the employer noticed.
The same worker, a month later, was instructed to test an antenna tilt, and again got the instructions confused. Eventually the site manager complained to the developer that it was impossible to work in such a manner as the worker did not understand what he was to do and did not have technical knowledge.
This type of communication breakdown leads to serious safety risks and also a downturn in onsite productivity.
In fact at Expert Language Solutions Ltd we are increasingly finding that a major percentage of calls to our offices are coming from concerned safety personnel on sites throughout the country.
Urgently requesting information and translation in various languages, safety officers are continually expressing their anxiety and concern about the legal implications these language lapses may have.
The demand for the translation of safety statements is growing and we are also experiencing an increasing demand for the translation of signage, mainly into Polish, Lithuanian and Czech.
As the sector becomes more aware of the dangerous and life-threatening incidents caused by non-cooperation with safety legislation, compliance on sites is still relatively stagnant with only half of all sites complying with all legal safety requirements.
HOW TO BE SAFETY COMPLIANT
As H.S.A Chief Executive Tom Beegan has pointed out, “it is not good enough to simply pass on the message” employers must start taking safety and communication requirements seriously.
There are five main areas that contractors should address:
1. Never assume that the broken English of your workforce constitutes a safe operating language level. Always double check to ensure your employees understands fully what the instructions are and what is expected of them.
2. Never rely on unqualified ‘translators’ or ‘interpreters’ recruited by chance within the workforce who simply do not have the relevant qualifications or technical knowledge to properly handle on site safety communications.
3. Use trained translators who specialise in onsite construction communications and can ensure all safety requirements are properly appreciated.
4. Equip all workers with properly translated health and safety documentation as prescribed by the SHWWA to protect both the firm and its non-national workforce.
5. Use on-site foreign language signage; have safety signage translated by a recognised translations company or ethnic language signage provider.