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Crossing the language barrier

According to OSHA requirements, if you are an employer, you must train your employees to:

  • Recognize and avoid unsafe conditions at their worksite.
  • Understand the OSHA rules applicable to their work environment.
  • Control or eliminate hazards and other exposure to illness or injury.

Completing this task effectively is a challenge. It becomes a greater challenge if your employees do not understand English.

In some occupations, such as the construction industry, the rate of injury and death for non–English speaking workers is much higher than it is for those that understand English. In fact, according to U.S. Census data, between 1996 and 1998, there was a 40 percent increase in Hispanic fatalities in the construction industry, with less than 20 percent increase in the Hispanic construction workforce. Employers and government agencies are beginning to realize that the language barrier is a major problem and accounts for greater rates of injury and illness for those who do not understand English.

When your employees do not understand English, safety training can be ineffective. Completing training sessions, explaining MSDSs, and promoting general workplace safety requirements, becomes a question rather than a statement. Instead of “they really understood,” it becomes “did they really understand?”

In a recent Letter of Interpretation on the hazard communication standard, OSHA determined that an employer’s responsibility to provide employees with information and training on hazardous chemicals in their work area does not go away just because the employee can’t understand verbal English. The employer must inform and train these employees in a language they understand.

Use an interpreter

The best solution to ensuring that your non–English speaking employees understand the safety requirements, and can recognize hazards, is to hire a bilingual safety instructor. If that is not practical, interpreter assistance may prove helpful in getting the safety message across. Here are some tips on how to work with interpreters effectively:

  • Ensure that interpreters are familiar with the subject.
  • Insist on complete translations of the information.
  • Ask your employees questions through the interpreter.
  • Use techniques that provide true communication.

Try to anticipate potential glitches and address them before the training session. An example would be a problem with a direct translation for a term or concept.

Hire bilingual supervisors

Ideally, supervisors of non–English speaking workers will be bilingual, allowing them to follow–up with workers after training and communicate with them on–the–job. Other employees can be quite helpful as well. Bilingual employees can pair–up with non–English speaking workers to help them understand the safety training.

In cases where your employees can’t read, you will need alternatives to written communication. Symbols and pictures are universal; everyone recognizes a “no smoking” sign. Incorporate the use of safety signs at your worksites. Use symbols and graphics that will effectively send the message to an employee speaking any language.

Remember these tips in providing training for non–English speaking workers:

  • Keep safety materials simple and avoid technical jargon.
  • Have relevant printed materials and safety videos in a second language for those who need it.
  • Use signs that include universal symbols and graphics to convey the message.
  • Encourage bilingual workers to help out with employees who are not fluent in English.
  • Offer incentives for supervisors to learn a second language.

Regardless of your approach to the language barrier, with some thoughtful planning it can be crossed. Good communication will ensure fewer accidents and safer working conditions.

Source: JJ Keller