As construction sites become increasingly dependent on foreign workers, Matthew Richards asks whether the industry is doing enough to break down a potentially fatal language barrier
Two years ago, a union leader made a speech to a crowd of workers on the Olympic stadium site in Sydney, Australia. Every word he spoke was translated into five languages and relayed back to a workforce made up of workers from Vietnam, Portugal and various eastern European states.

That wouldn't happen in the UK. Despite the influx of foreign workers to make up skills shortages on construction sites, very little is being done to communicate with non-English speakers. On sites across the country, site managers are unable to speak to their workers – leading to inefficiencies, accidents and even deaths.

But the industry is slowly waking up to the potential problems of these "Tower of Babel" sites. "You can't have a two-tier workforce", says Bob Blackman, national secretary for construction at union T&G. "If you're going to move the industry forward, you have to include people who can't speak English."

Construction unions are beginning to speak up for foreign workers – partly because of concerns over safety and partly because they hope to tap into a rich potential source of new members. Construction union UCATT admits it is looking to recruit foreigners and to appoint officers from the same background to represent them.

A spate of accidents has spurred the unions into action. Last year Brian Craze, a construction official at T&G, attended a funeral for a Romanian killed on a church renovation site in central London. The worker was crushed by a collapsing wall; although Craze cannot prove the tragedy was directly caused by linguistic misunderstanding, he says: "All these kinds of incidents are language related."

As the industry becomes increasingly dependent on foreign labour, Craze expects such accidents to soar. "I think it's just a matter of time before the bodies start going back to eastern Europe the way they used to go back to Ireland," he says, referring to the high casualty rates among Irish labourers in the last century.

Stories abound about language-related incidents on sites. One is the case of an eastern European worker who didn't understand instructions about movement of plant explained during his site induction. He was knocked down and hospitalised when a large piece of equipment went into reverse.

However, many of these stories are anecdotal and union officials and the Health and Safety Executive admit they lack hard statistics on the scale of the problem. This is compounded by the fact that many foreigners are illegal immigrants, meaning that incidents are hushed up. There are tales of injured foreigners discharging themselves from hospitals and disappearing following visits from health and safety investigators.

HSE principal inspector Tony Hetherington warns that firms could face corporate manslaughter charges if language problems were found to contribute to site deaths. Under the 1999 Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations, every employer has to "provide employees with comprehensible and relevant information on risks to their health and safety".

Workers with poor English are treated like animals. Nobody has time to explain, so people shout at them

Bruce Henderson, former plant operator

This means all safety information should be translated for each non-English speaker on site. "Failure to comply with the regulations is a criminal offence, and could be part of the prosecution case if corporate manslaughter charges are brought," says Hetherington.

Language problems can hurt profits as well as causing accidents. "If you can't communicate, you work less efficiently," says John Bradshaw of the Major Contractors Group. He explains that foreign workers work less efficiently if they don't understand the goals for that day or week.

Bruce Henderson, a former plant operator, agrees. "On multilingual sites it takes twice as long to do the job," he says.

Henderson gives two examples to back his claim. A foreman on a Costain site told a group of Albanians to brick up one entrance to a network of service tunnels and leave the other two open. The workers, however, bricked up all three, trapping 20 people inside for half an hour.

On a Llewellyn site, the opposite problem occurred: a group of Polish bricklayers knocked down a wall they were meant to repoint.

Henderson adds that non-English speakers are often bullied by employers. "Workers with poor English are treated like animals," he says.

"Nobody has time to explain things properly to them, so people just shout at them. They're cannon fodder."

However, there are signs that the industry is beginning to tackle the problem. After a dramatic increase in calls from foreign workers, the HSE has signed up to Language Line, a telephone translation service that allows case workers to address grievances in any language. The HSE will publicise the service later this year.

It’s the arrogance of the English, expecting everybody to speak their own language

George Brumwell, general secretary, UCATT

Contractors are also taking steps to break down the language barrier. Suzannah Nichol, director of health and safety at the Construction Confederation, says there has been a surge in enquiries from companies asking how to handle workers who don't speak English.

As a result, the confederation is preparing to issue a briefing note offering guidance on the subject. It is expected to recommend measures including translating induction cards and other literature and providing interpreters on sites.

Hertfordshire-based contractor John Sisk & Son has already translated induction cards into Albanian and Romanian, and Amec is considering following suit. Sisk safety official Brian Rutter says the firm plans to go further, putting up multilingual safety posters in site canteens.

However, Rutter adds: "An induction card is not sufficient – you need training." He says everyone allowed onto a Sisk site, including subcontractors, has to go through on-site safety training. If their English isn't good enough to understand the training, they are sent off the job."

Like Sisk, Carillion places great emphasis on safety training for all, including non-English speakers. Safety official Charles Yates says: "We prefer regular, short, sharp briefings to a whole day of training." The company's site managers give the workforce a summary of the method statement for every part of the job. Where necessary, they provide interpreters to make sure non-English speakers understand what's going on.

In addition, Carillion has had its "toolbox talk" videos – which explain how to operate potentially dangerous equipment – translated into languages such as Punjabi, Hindi and Portuguese.

Rather than hire non-English speakers, some firms insist all workers are able to speak the language. But though responsibility to ensure that suitable workers are sent to a site rests partly with recruitment agencies, the checks are often circumvented. Richard Dugdale, a senior consultant at human resources agency Hays Montrose, says he uses in-person interviews to spot workers with a poor level of English. However, he claims most other agencies carry out their interviews by telephone, which means non-English speakers can use an English-speaking friend to talk to the agency and trick their way onto the books.

Many sites today ensure that at least one of a group of foreign workers speaks English and interprets for the rest. But petrochemical firm BP goes a step further on its construction sites. The company operates a "buddy system", where every person with little or no English has their own interpreter by their side at all times.

Eddie Ruthven, assistant director of training services at the Construction Industry Training Board, questions whether non-English speakers can ever be safe on construction sites, because "the interpreter can't be around all the time". He says: "Employers should bring foreign workers up to a basic standard of English."