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Color can be used as a universal language for communicating to multicultural workforces.

MOST people agree cultural diversity in the workplace utilizes our country's skills to their fullest, while also contributing to our overall growth and prosperity. However, many of the workers employed in the commercial and industrial sectors continue to rely mostly, if not totally, on their native tongue. While understandable, the result has been that many mid-level and even some upper-level managers have needed to pick up a new language to communicate their directions to subordinates.

Consequently, communicating with a workforce that may include more than one language and even several dialects can be one of the most serious issues facing businesses today.

Unfortunately, lost time and the errors that can occur because of poor communications and misunderstandings can be a byproduct of the diverse environment. Most experts agree companies that seek the benefits of a culturally diverse workforce share an added responsibility to ensure language and other barriers do not put employees at a greater risk of injury. Also agreed is that when injuries do occur, language and other differences should also not hamper emergency response measures.

The first step is to recognize the potential for language-related communications problems in your operation. There are several basic issues driven by ANSI Z358.1 guidelines that can have an impact on language-restricted employee safety, including:

  • Deliver proper operations training. It's important to recognize that employees who have spent time working in other countries often have developed work habits that may not be conducive to safety. An approach to lifting, for example, may be expedient and also very personally dangerous. So proper training of employees on their job functions, as well as making them aware of potentially hazardous aspects of the operation with which they may come into contact, is critical to accident avoidance. While this may seem basic, it is very often overlooked in the real world.

  • Stress safety as a cultural cornerstone. Likewise, the whole idea of safety as an employer priority may be alien to the multicultural worker. "Safety" as a necessary ingredient for long-term employment should be an integral part of the selection and hiring process. Short-cutting procedures and taking chances are often standard practices in offshore operations, and that difference versus the practice in U.S. businesses must be driven home to all employees.

  • Color-coding enables universal access. Color can be used as a universal language for communicating to multicultural workforces. ANSI Standard Z535.1 establishes standardized industrial Safety Color Codes. Standard Z535.2 establishes Environmental and Facility Safety Sign guidelines aimed at uniformity, including consistent color use and visual layout. Using the guidelines provided by both standards, numerous manufacturers and suppliers over the years have clarified an industry-accepted standard for color usage. When properly used, this type of approach can minimize the impact of language differences.

    Standardized industrial safety colors and their intended applications are:

    Safety green designates "safety" and the location of first aid and emergency response equipment, including drench showers and eyewashes. Employees who are not fluent in English can be instructed and drilled on seeking out the safety green-colored emergency equipment, should they be injured on the job.

    Safety red is the color for identification of fire protection equipment and apparatus. This color category also includes alarm boxes, blanket boxes, fire buckets/pails, and fire extinguishers. Additionally, red is to be used for emergency stop bars and buttons on hazardous machinery.

    The chief function of safety blue is for general informational signs and bulletin boards. It is also used for specific warning signs associated with railroad operations and warning not to use or move equipment under repair.

    Black with White or Yellow:
    Safety black with safety white or safety yellow (in combination) are the colors designating traffic controls and housekeeping markings. The preferred use of safety black with safety yellow is for traffic markings, while safety black with safety white use is reserved for information purposes.

    Fluorescent Orange, Orange-Red:
    This is used for labels and containers for blood and infectious waste. (Warning labels must be fluorescent orange or orange-red with the biosafety symbol in a contrasting color.)

    Magenta or Purple on Yellow:
    This is used as a radiation caution, including x-ray, alpha, beta, gamma, neutron, and proton radiation.

    Safety Yellow:
    The basic color for designating caution and marking physical hazards, such as striking against, stumbling, falling, tripping, and "caution in between," it may also be used for storage cabinets and safety cans for flammable or corrosive materials, including explosives and other unstable materials. Solid yellow or yellow with black stripes or checkers may be used interchangeably to provide the most visually commanding application.

    Safety orange is the basic color for designating dangerous parts of machines and other energized equipment that may cause injuries, including cuts, crushing, shocking, or other contact-related injuries. It is also used to alert the open state of equipment doors that otherwise isolate internal gears, belts, and other unguarded hazards.

  • Over-deliver on equipment, access, and lighting. Specifiers should consider obvious-looking equipment, which makes it easy to locate and understand. Booth-type emergency shower products have obvious operational benefits, including tempered water and recirculation packages. They are also very conspicuous, which can be a non-trivial advantage to a multi-cultural workforce.

    Per ANSI, emergency equipment must be located within 10 seconds' walk from any potential accident site and must be on the same level, with no physical barriers for the injured employee to traverse. Simply adhering to this requirement will make emergency showers and eyewashes accessible to all employees.

    Finally, the areas designated for the placement of emergency eyewashes and drench showers must be well lit to minimize the possibility they would be overlooked during an emergency.

  • Train on emergency response measures. An often-overlooked, critical element of preparation for emergencies in a multicultural work environment is the training of employees. Drilling the team on the steps to be taken in an emergency is the best insurance they will know what to do when it's no longer a drill. Operations managers also should fully understand that the notion of using an eyewash or stepping into a running shower, fully clothed, may be foreign in itself. So explaining the physiological needs for eye irrigation and flushing off of hazardous substances may need to be done at a very low level of understanding.

  • Consider multiple-language signs. This is an obvious idea. The availability of sign design and printing software on site can provide the flexibility you need to give location directions in several languages simultaneously. Software packages are available that can automatically format signs to both meet standard requirements and your specific needs. Once again, consideration for the needs of language-challenged employees and complying with the requirements of ANSI, OSHA, and others can be easily accomplished.

Why This Matters
Diversity in the workplace is here to stay. Its benefits to the U.S. economy and business culture are obvious, as are the challenges it brings. Proper planning and recognition that language and other barriers can be minimized by thorough communications and training are essential to success. Measures such as using color coding for in-plant assets have proven to be effective at reducing accident rates by as much as 40 percent.

A well-thought-out safety and response plan and companion training of all employees are critical steps, and well worth the effort.

This article appeared in the September 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the September 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Casey Hayes is the Director of Haws Integrated™. He can be reached at 775-353-8320 or [email protected] Haws is committed to inventing, designing, and manufacturing hydration products as well as standardized and customized emergency response products. For more information, visit www.hawsco.com.

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