The following statements may surprise you, but believe it or not, studies have shown that unfortunately this is a growing trend in employee safety:
- Hispanic and Latino workers have the highest workplace fatality rate of any group
- Hispanic and Latino fatality rates are nearly 50% higher than the overall rate
- Hispanic and Latino fatality rates for occupational injury are on the rise, as the rates among nearly all other groups are falling
- These same trends can be seen in other populations with high numbers of limited English proficient (LEP) workers, including immigrant populations
- These stats are largely attributed to language barriers and a lack of appropriate employee training
This is a major concern for industries that employ large numbers of LEP workers, such as construction, agriculture, manufacturing and service industries like hospitality.
As American workplaces become increasingly diverse, language deficiencies can become a huge obstacle for many businesses. Employees who don’t speak English or for whom English is not their first language typically struggle to understand common workplace procedures and instructions and when those procedures are related to safety, a lack of comprehension can lead to unfortunate and sometimes fatal outcomes.
Why does this happen? How can this be corrected? These are just a couple of questions that often surround these situations and the most common culprit is that many non-English-speaking employees not only struggle to read training documents, safety signs and other written materials, but they also may not feel very comfortable asking for clarification in English or in the language they are most comfortable with because they fear being misunderstood or getting into trouble.
So, what can be done to help eliminate some of these issues and make employees of all backgrounds feel safe and protected? According to Creative Safety Publishing, the following four tips have made a positive difference.
- Make It Visual
We often talk about how having a visual workplace can improve communication, and this holds true for workers with a limited understanding of English. Posting safety signs, labels, floor markings and other clear visual cues can help these workers understand the hazards and instructions of the workplace.
To facilitate comprehension of visuals like safety signs, try to focus on images or pictograms that will be easily understood. “Warning” and “Caution” signs, for example, have a standard format that uses an image and basic text. You could consider printing signs in more than one language, too. This is most feasible if your workers as a group only speak one language besides English (instead of many different languages).
In general, it’s a good idea to use standard colors and symbols on your signs and labels as employees may already recognize the signs (like fire exit signs, for example) by the way they look. The increasing use of the globally harmonized system (GHS) labels for hazardous chemicals may also help workers recognize the different types of hazards. The goal of GHS is to make communication of hazards between companies and workers in different countries simpler, so consider using these and other standard symbols in your visual workplace.
Workers need to receive training and safety information in a language they understand. Otherwise it’s unlikely that all that important information will be understood. When conveying safety information to workers, have an interpreter on hand to communicate the information and to answer questions. This person could be an outside translator, a bilingual supervisor or even a bilingual employee (though if one of your employees interpret, you may need to provide him or her with training ahead of time about what they need to communicate and emphasize).
Companies should also consider hiring a translation service to translate safety materials into the languages their employees speak. Be sure to test these materials out with a native speaker before distributing them or posting them in the workplace, though, as inaccurate translations or variations in dialect can lead to confusion. Before having anything translated, it’s important to make sure the materials you have are clear in English first, too; unclear messaging in the original language will only get more diluted after translation.
Having an interpreter, we just mentioned, on hand during training sessions is key, but there are other things you can do during training to make sure non-English-speaking workers learn everything they need to know.
First, try to make training as hands-on as possible. Showing workers the tasks they will need to perform and the safety measures they will need to take (such as donning gloves, turning off the power to a machine before cleaning it or only walking in certain areas of the facility) will help these workers understand and remember what they need to do.
- Language Learning
While workplaces cannot insist their workers learn English, they can encourage workers to learn vocabulary that’s relevant to the tasks at hand. Learning job-related vocabulary will help speakers of different languages communicate with each other, and it will help workers with limited English proficiency feel more confident at work.
A company could encourage this kind of learning by having language lessons, distributing language-learning materials or having workers attend English as a Second Language classes outside the worksite. To avoid overwhelming workers, do try to focus on the most important terminology, though.
A case study example on employee safety:
According to Safety Online Skills Training, a study conducted by the Center for Protection of Worker’s Rights (CPWR), in conjunction with OSHA, Spanish-speaking construction workers were polled about their experiences with health and safety on the job. They were also provided with a 10-hour training course conducted in Spanish, with Spanish-speaking trainers and Spanish-language versions of OSHA handouts and brochures. According to the report, most workers stated that “when they took other training in English, they did not understand a substantial amount of course content. They added that, even when they understood what was being said, they did not have the English language skills to ask questions or participate in discussions.”
The workers all felt that receiving training in their native language was helpful, and nearly all reported that they wanted more (and more effective) safety and health training delivered by Spanish-speaking trainers. “In response to open-ended questions, most of those interviewed said they faced substantial challenges when trying to understand what they were told at work.” They complained that supervisors and co-workers who did not speak Spanish were less willing to explain things to workers with limited English, and as a result they often told the workers to simply skip safety procedures.
Many of the workers were also able to point to examples of past onsite injury incidents they experienced which they felt were directly related to either not receiving proper training, or to not understanding the English-language training they did receive. Many involved workers who simply did not know the proper procedures or what PPE they needed. Others involved workers ignoring instructions given in English, because they did not understand what they were being told.
Give employees the training, attention and protection they need.
As an employee safety manager, HR professional, or business owner, it’s your job to make sure your employees feel safe and comfortable at work. This means accommodating workers who don’t understand English well. When companies don’t take the extra time to communicate effectively with these workers, they risk putting these employees in danger that could lead to accidents and injuries.
About LTC Language Solutions:
LTC Language Solutions is a full-service language company providing state-of-the-art language solutions for local and national companies, organizations, government agencies, and individuals since 1993. LTC provides language training, cross-cultural training, interpretation, translation, repatriation, language assessments and interpreter and people skills training. LTC has gained a reputation for high-quality, customized services provided through long-term relationships, having some of the same clients for over 25 years.