Breaching the Language Barrier

While the number of bilingual resource materials continues to increase, the delivery of the information is falling flat.

BREAKING down language barriers is critical to maintaining a safe work environment. Why the concern? As the number of employees with English as a Second Language (ESL) has increased over the past decade, the number of workplace injuries has risen disproportionately, particularly in the construction industry. Even the U.S. government has recognized this trend and earmarked more than $2.2 million in new funding for education in the 2004 fiscal year.

What's more, the number of employees for whom English is a second language is expected to continue to increase in the future. By 2005, it is projected that Hispanics will account for 14 percent of the U.S. population, making them the country's largest minority. The U.S. Dept. of Labor reports fatality rates among Spanish-speaking workers rose 11 percent in 2000 and 9 percent in 2001. While fatalities for this group dropped 6 percent in 2002, the 840 fatalities accounted for the second-highest annual total for that population.

The ESL problem extends beyond the Hispanic community to Asians and Eastern Europeans, to name a few. Coupled with language barriers are cultural differences that may prevent these employees from questioning authority or the unsafe work practices of their co-workers or employers. Undocumented workers may be afraid of deportation if they report a safety violation.

While OSHA does not require employers to provide safety training and protection in an employee's native language, the agency also does not make exceptions for a lack of required safety training. In fact, many industries with employees who work with hazardous chemicals, such as the janitorial industry, hire large numbers of employees with weak English language skills. Yet understanding and following product instructions is not only necessary to do these jobs well, but also is critical to working safely with hazardous chemicals. Improperly combining chemicals that react to create dangerous fumes could harm not only the worker, but also the occupants of the buildings they maintain.

Without a good understanding of English, reading warning labels and Material Safety Data Sheets is difficult. Workers may again lack the language skills necessary to ask questions and report problems to their supervisors.

While some companies are making an effort to improve their employee's English language skills, some are not willing to spend extra dollars for bilingual safety training. Industries with large numbers of non-English-speaking workers often have high turnover rates, which only lead to increase training costs down the road.

OSHA's Outreach
In 2002, OSHA took several steps to increase communication on safety issues to the Hispanic community. It set up a Spanish-language Web page at and a toll-free number that puts employees in touch with Spanish-speaking OSHA officials. It also created Spanish language safety courses, including the OSHA 10 Hour Construction Outreach course, and made them available through its Education Centers. Additionally, OSHA established alliances with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Hispanic Contractors of America.

Of the $11.2 million awarded to 67 non-profit organizations for safety and health training and educational programs under the government-funded Susan Harwood Training Grants for 2003, many programs include bilingual training components and materials. For example, The Associated General Contractors of America (Alexandria, Va.) received $233,000 to educate contractors and their employees in fall protection and prevention, with resource materials provided in both English and Spanish. Kansas State University received $217,590 to develop a library of bilingual training resources for the landscaping and horticultural industries.

OSHA's outreach to the Hispanic community is found not only at the national level, but also through local emphasis programs where programs can be developed to target regional needs. However, while the number of bilingual resource materials continues to increase, the delivery of the information is falling flat, as many small to mid-size employers are not yet aware of the resources available to them. In addition, some safety experts suspect many workers with ESL are not fully literate in their native languages, thus making it difficult to communicate through written materials.

Companies trying to deal with ESL are seeking out bilingual supervisors who can translate safety instructions in their employees' native language. Interpreters also are being used to translate safety signage and manuals for specific workplaces. There is increased use of symbols to describe hazards. The use of videos for training in both English and other foreign languages is on the rise because this communication method seems to be more effective in getting the point across.

Some agree ESL employees retain more of what they see as opposed to what they hear or read. However, experts suggest it is important to supplement such training methods with person-to-person contact in the workplace, reiterating that verbal training and on-the-job demonstrations of safe work procedures also are needed. It is easy for an employee with poor English skills to pretend he understands visual and written training materials when, in fact, he may not.

Train with An Eye to Cultural Differences
Recognizing cultural differences and using them in a positive way are important parts of breaching the language barrier. Some ethnic groups respect older people more than younger people. Some are matriarchal or patriarchal, and these differences need to be considered when selecting safety trainers.

Among some groups, machismo is a strong factor that can influence whether a worker will wear protective equipment or take unwise risks. Supervisors need to have some familiarity with the cultural traits of their workforce. This means that not only the workers, but their supervisors, and in larger companies, human resource personnel, may need to learn a second language and become more familiar with other cultures to be fully effective in their jobs.

In order to motivate workers to learn English, many educators believe training must include English skills for use in their home life, as well as on the job. Although they need to understand how to read work schedules, safety checklists, machinery, and equipment instructions, they also want to learn the language skills that are necessary to deal with their families' medical needs, schools problems, and immigration issues.

The National Safety Council concluded that it is necessary to get members of the targeted community involved in all stages of the design, development, and delivery of bilingual training and outreach materials. This will help to ensure the materials are sensitive to issues of literacy and culture.

Other tools to break down language barriers include conducting job site and new hire safety orientations in the predominant foreign language, as well as in English. Regular bilingual training should be followed by safety topics relevant to the company's operations. Company newsletters covering typical problems on the job can have articles printed in both languages.

Ultimately, encouraging workers to attend English language classes put on within the workplace and community is the key to breaching the barrier. However, it may be necessary to implement workplace incentive programs to bolster attendance. Small cash or material rewards for completion of coursework can be a powerful motivator.

Legal Issues
Language barriers also need to be looked at from a legal perspective. Some courts have found language discrimination to be the same as discrimination based on race or national origin. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, an employer may not deny a person an employment opportunity because that person is not proficient or fluent in English unless the job actually requires some English language skills, and the person does not possess the particular type and level of English language skill required to do the job.

Companies, across all industries, should understand that language barriers will continue to grow. Continued effort needs to be publicized to businesses of all sizes that ESL resources and programs are available.

Coordinated efforts with community leaders, government, educational institutions, trade associations, and labor unions are imperative so companies can fulfill their own economic needs and make sure they send their employees home safely each night.

This article originally appeared in the June 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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