When, in 2005, the overall construction fatalities in this country dropped 1.2 percent, Hispanic construction fatality rates actually rose an alarming 2 percent. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 12 percent of serious, lost-time injuries of Hispanic construction workers occurred on their very first day of employment. It is obvious that poor, ineffective or totally neglected communication on the construction site is the leading direct cause of injury, illness and death among non-English- speaking workers — a group projected to become the leading sector of construction labor. It’s clear something meaningful must be done quickly to remove the language barriers. A feasible solution could actually be here, in our hands today.

I’ve reached an age where I am hardly surprised anymore. However, that all changed when I recently read an article titled “Portable Language Translation Device Being Used by Clearwater Police.” The device in the article was called ELSA, and its name is an acronym derived from Enabling Language Service Anywhere.

Within the hour I was on the phone interviewing Mr. John Grove, Strategic Partner for RTT Mobile Interpretation. Many readers may recognize ELSA’s obvious literary parallel as the “Babel fish” in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It was a fictitious, small, leech-like, telepathic fish, which, when inserted into the protagonist’s ear, would immediately enable him to understand and speak any language in the universe. In our world, ELSA is a simple, wireless device enabling two people speaking different native languages to communicate with each other almost effortlessly. While there are numerous language translation programs and applications currently available online for both computers and smart phones, there is nothing as accurate, portable and simple as a live interpreter with whom you can immediately communicate directly anywhere, anytime.

ELSA is a proprietary, hands-free, body-worn, wireless electronic device capable of providing 24/7, two-way verbal interpretations in 180 languages. ELSA was invented in 2005 by Charles Howerton, a Minnesota building contractor who became frustrated with communication problems between him and his Hispanic workers. He attempted and failed to learn fluent Spanish. Next he hired an onsite interpreter but encountered more problems than he solved. Then he realized the interpreter did not have to be right by his side for two individuals speaking different languages to communicate. He had an engineer’s help to develop a prototype, and suddenly a wireless, two-way operating center providing off-site interpreters became available.

The ELSA unit is compact, lightweight and very durable, with a new and refined speaker and microphone technology. The unit is 3 by 41/2 inches, less than 1 inch thick and only 8 ounces. It has a rechargeable battery to provide eight hours of talk on a full charge and 30 hours of stand-by time. It can be clipped to the belt or shirt or hung from a lanyard around the user’s neck. It operates on standard cellphone technology (AT&T carrier) and will work wherever there is signal reception. The microphone is capable of filtering out the ambient noise levels encountered on most construction sites. The large, directional speaker has volume control and is able to clearly project the interpreter’s voice on site up to 30 feet away.

Simultaneously, each transmission (both sides) is wirelessly recorded and stored in a secure data vault and stored as the subscriber’s private property for up to five years. Data may be accessed via password security by computer or smart phone. Due to HIPPA and personal liability concerns, content privacy is ultimately protected and isolated from hackers. Every interpreter is thoroughly vetted and screened and has situation-related experience, including the use of professional and trade-specific terminology so important in the building trades.

The device currently retails for $395 plus tax and shipping. The translation services are available in three tiered plans which can range from $1.99 per minute to $1.25 per minute, depending on usage. Law enforcement, hospitals and emergency first responders quickly became the first consumers of the device and service. The obvious immediacy and accuracy of rapid communication of these fields is paramount to the life and safety of all concerned. ELSA is also an ideal tool for insurance adjusters and field operatives, accident investigators, border patrol agents, instructors, and overseas diplomatic and military applications.

ELSA in Construction

The construction industry may currently be a secondary market, but with its rapidly growing recruitment of non-English-speaking personnel in the years to come, that will soon change. It won’t take long for the bookkeepers in the industry to report increased profits using ELSA from a simple cost-benefit analysis. Better communication with ELSA will result from and lead to an increased return on investment.

Roofing contractors are a large subset of those contractors who increasingly employ foreign-born, Hispanic workers. Everyone has seen onsite episodes of frustration whenever a language barrier arises between management and crew. The volume of conversation rapidly rises and sentences become incoherently pared down to verbs and nouns, all accompanied by angry faces and some pretty erratic hand gestures. The non-English-speaking laborer can feel immediately isolated and accused of failing to comply. Although the laborer might be willing to do anything to succeed in satisfying the foreman speaking so intently in a foreign language, he or she often becomes frozen and inactive because anything he or she does from that moment on may result in negative effects.

Acting on an order given by someone with authority in a totally unknown, foreign language could be a daring decision. In the construction field, it could prove deadly. Furthermore, a recent study by the Center to Protect Workers’ Rights (CPWR) noted that an inability on the part of the employee to understand and speak management’s language has a devaluing effect on a worker who then compares unfavorably to his coworker who can communicate, albeit poorly. In other words, to have a coworker interpreting for a coworker seemingly demotes that individual to a lower class, installing yet another social barrier between him and the management he must satisfy to keep his job.

Management has an obligation to speak to and be understood by that employee. ELSA can not only interpret and reply during rapidly spoken communication in two languages, but can remove the awkward social stigma associated with an onsite interpreter. An immediate interpretation allows for further clarification when many foreign language directions may be accompanied by confusing hand signals. As a result, voices stay at conversational volume, body gestures remain calm and facial expressions denote compliant satisfaction rather than frustration imitating anger. ELSA can easily become a tool for social democracy on the job as well as a universal interpreter.

We now know from experience that a well-informed and skillfully developed workforce does not result simply from you speaking their language or them speaking your language. Management must also understand the employee’s cultural history, social behaviors and motivations, just as they do with native-born workers. For instance, verification that your crew has not only attended but clearly understood a bilingual tailgate safety meeting is critical to eliminating accidents resulting in lost work time and injury. A complete transcript is also available from RTT’s storage site should confirmation of communication be necessary.

Bilingual field verification is also critical for auditors, as personnel evaluations are a definitive way of determining if the rubber is actually meeting the road when it comes to workplace safety. ELSA is a device which can help a trainer to verify employee comprehension. Repeated use of ELSA may also have the ancillary benefit of actually teaching both parties a new language by means of repetition and saturation. In my opinion, unless and until the proponents of English-only worksites yield unconditionally to the inevitable rise in the Hispanic workforce, the future use of ELSA on these worksites is practically guaranteed.