Employee Safety for Non-Native English Speakers

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
  • Fatality rates for occupational injury are on the rise for the Hispanic and Latino population. Rates among nearly all other groups are falling
  • These trends can be seen in other populations with limited English proficient (LEP) workers, including immigrant populations
  • Inappropriate employee training is largely attributed to language barrier issues

This is a major concern for industries that employ large numbers of LEP workers. Industries often sited are construction, agriculture, manufacturing and service industries like hospitality.

The Struggles of non-native English speakers

As American workplaces become increasingly diverse, language deficiencies can become a huge obstacle for many businesses. Employees who don’t speak English typically struggle to understand common workplace procedures. They also struggle with instructions 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 struggle to read. They struggle with training documents, safety signs and other written materials. Because they fear being misunderstood or getting into trouble, often they don’t feel very comfortable asking for clarification.

What can be done to protect employees of all backgrounds?

According to Creative Safety Publishing, the following four tips have made a positive difference.

  1. Make It Visual

We often talk about how having a visual workplace can improve communication. This holds true for workers with a limited understanding of English. Posting safety signs, labels, 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 as employees may already recognize the signs (for example, fire exit signs) 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.

  1. Interpreters

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.

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. Inaccurate translations or variations in dialect can lead to confusion. It’s important to make sure the materials are clear in English before you have anything translated. Unclear messaging in the original language will only get more diluted after translation.

  1. Training

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.

  1. 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. Even when workers said they understood what was being said, they still did not have the English language skills to ask questions or participate in discussions.

All of the workers believed that receiving training in their native language was helpful. They also reported that they wanted more (and more effective) safety and health training delivered by Spanish-speaking trainers. “The interviewees 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. As a result, they often told the workers to simply skip safety procedures.

Many of the workers sited examples of past onsite injury incidents they experienced. They believed that these injuries 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, interpreter and people skills training. They have gained a reputation for high-quality, customized services provided through long-term relationships, having some of the same clients for over 25 years.

Resources:

https://www.creativesafetypublishing.com/workplace-safety-for-non-english-speakers/

https://safetyskills.com/training-effective-native-language/

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