Safe working in all languages
Updated on: 30 Sep. 2020

Safe working in all languages

"It’s not about language, but about what you're willing to do for each other."

The Hague is growing. And with it the demand for centrally located homes where people can comfortably live until a ripe, old age. More than 600 new homes, commercial facilities and a car park near the renovated Haga Hospital at the Leyweg in The Hague South have made this possible. Aelbers employees have been enlisted by both Heijmans Woningbouw and Heijmans Infra. Heijmans asked for our cooperation for a great article in connection with the safety day on 20th March 2019.

“Safety starts with being seen. It’s not about language, but about what you're willing to do for each other.”

- Sjaak Luijten, Operational Manager & GO-Coach at Heijmans
“Safety starts with being seen. It’s not about language, but about what you're willing to do for each other.”

The number of different nationalities at an average construction site can’t be counted on one hand. This naturally results in certain challenges where safety is concerned. In order to make sure these challenges are effectively dealt with, Heijmans works with Aelbers, among others, who provide a permanent flexible supply of eighty to a hundred labour migrants on the construction sites every single day. This has already resulted in multilingual toolbox meetings, but actually goes way beyond this.

The structural shortage of skilled workers means it’s not impossible to imagine Heijmans’ construction sites without labour migrants from Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Croatia. A proportion of these skilled workers are supplied by Aelbers.

Sjaak Luijten, Operational Manager and GO-coach at Heijmans, has been working together with Aelbers in this field since 2001. This mainly involved skilled migrants from Germany during the initial years and other nationalities have gradually been added to this over the years. “I remember Heijmans working on the Eindhoven ring road eleven years ago.

They needed staff, but there was a distinct lack of available Germans at the time. So I decided to head off to Poland and recruited twenty-five carpenters for the civil concrete construction there. When I arrived back at the contractor, he said: These are Poles, I wanted Germans. To which I replied: I thought you wanted carpenters?”, Michaël Kempka says, an Aelbers advisor.

He can laugh about it now, but you’ll undoubtedly get the gist. We simply can’t do without labour migrants, so we have to do everything in our power to ensure they can work here safely.

English isn’t enough

Aelbers and Heijmans enjoy a very close working relationship to realise this. Aelbers trained ten members of staff to become Aelbers Coaches by allowing them to complete the Heijmans GO-coach training and they have arranged translations of the toolbox meetings, which are accessible to everyone via the GO-app. These translations are an important start to working safely. However, Michaël Kempka does emphasise the fact that it isn’t enough to simply have the toolbox meetings translated into English. “Most of our workers do understand English, but it’s absolutely essential for everyone to understand the true core of the message where important subjects like safety are concerned. This is simply only possible in your own language. So we arrange for everything to be translated into eight languages. You instantly notice that a toolbox in their own language has a much greater effect and they start to ask questions. Holding people accountable for safety is also much more effective in their own language.”
English isn’t enough


The toolbox translations are prepared by Aelbers’ EEA/construction site coordinators, who are also the ones who organise the actual toolbox meetings and visit the construction sites every week. They serve as the initial point of contact for labour migrants too, if they happen to come across any problems. Incredibly important, as safety obviously goes way beyond understanding the rules. Sjaak Luijten thinks a safe workplace starts with having respect for each other. He has interpreted this himself by regularly visiting the construction site and talking to everyone.

“Labour migrants always look concerned when I enter the construction site and they don’t know who I am. They immediately start doubting themselves, as the hierarchy in the countries they come from is naturally very different and a manager will only come by to see them if something is wrong. I try to get rid of this stigma by getting to know them. That’s the start of the we-feeling I truly believe is necessary to create safe working conditions. After all, you won’t feel like you belong until you properly form part of something and you won't dare say something about an unsafe situation until you are confident you won’t be sent home if you do so.”

Safety starts with creating calm

In addition to devoting time to personal contact, creating a we-feeling can often also be realised in small practical things. “We provide our staff with all the clothing, PPE’s and electrical tools they need. This means they have the exact same resources as their colleagues with a Heijmans contract. To start with these are obviously safe materials, but perhaps even more important: they all look the same. After all, you’ll never feel like you're part of a group if you’re wearing a different colour helmet. We also facilitate the labour migrants’ accommodation. This absolutely has to be a nice place to stay, where the shower works, where you can Skype with your family and friends and where you can rest at the end of your day. Otherwise you’ll never truly be able to work safely.”

Sjaak Luijten adds that it’s also very important for people to match their place of work. “A good flexible supply is very important to Heijmans. They know how Heijmans likes to work and can subsequently really leave a mark on projects. But this does mean they need to be deployed to a workplace which suits them. The advantage of this long-term relationship with Aelbers is that we know each other through and through. This makes it a great deal easier to put the right man in the right place, which results in employees who find themselves in an enjoyable job, who feel appreciated and are getting paid for it too. That’s where safety starts.”