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Bridging the Language Barrier in Safety

Bridging the language gap is critical to maintaining a safe and healthful workplace. Over the past decade, remarkable gains have been achieved in occupational safety and health. Although general industry and construction injury and illness incidence rates have dropped, similar improvements have not occurred for non-English speaking workers such as Hispanics or Latinos.

Ned Fayson

Ned Fayson
Safety and Health Consultant

Fatal work injuries among Hispanic or Latino workers rose to 53 fatalities in 2011, up from 38 in 2010.

Injuries and Illnesses

2011 Fatal Occupational Injuries – Florida, by ethnic group:

White: 133

Hispanic/Latino: 53

Black/African American: 32

Asian: 6

2010 Fatal Occupational Injuries – Florida, by ethnic group:

White: 155

Hispanic/Latino: 38

Black/African American: 24

Asian: 4

*Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

English-speaking workers have the benefits of learning from each other (informal training) on the jobsite. Traditional safety training is not effective for immigrants who do not speak English or speak a little English, especially when it is delivered by a trainer who expects the worker to receive it, understand it and use it. Furthermore, safety meetings, tool box talks and briefings are not as productive when the knowledgeable trainer, supervisor or employer only speaks English. When workers cannot communicate effectively to perform work duties, co-workers also can become impacted resulting in low morale, low production and profit and potentially increased accidents.

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers are responsible for providing a safe and healthy workplace for all employees. Collaborative efforts with government, trade associations, alliances, educational institutions, labor unions and employee representatives are essential to bridge the language gap in workplaces small and large across America with the ultimate goal of aggressively eliminating injuries, illnesses and fatalities for all workers.

Closing the Gap

OSHA has initiated alliances and public-sector outreach initiatives for Latino and Hispanic workers as well as other non-English speaking groups. Many OSHA publications and safety training materials are available in multiple languages, including Spanish, Chinese, Creole, Korean, Russian and Vietnamese.

Efficient communication with non-English-speaking employees results in fewer workplace injuries, illnesses and fatalities. Some companies use innovative methods to bridge the language gap and improve communication, such as:

  • Seek out bilingual employees in your firm. These workers can relate to and can help non-English speaking workers or trainees relax and get comfortable in both a formal and informal training session. They translate and enable clearer communication between English-speaking and non-English speaking employees, which can foster participation in training by asking questions and sharing past experiences, ultimately leading to safe performance on the job.
  • Offer hands-on training that requires demonstration of understanding. This can be an effective method to overcome literacy and language barriers. Hands-on training, with positive reinforcement, is a powerful way to reduce workplace accidents and increase safety understanding.
  • Consider offering English as a Second Language courses, with monetary incentives upon completion. Companies are using various initiatives to improve safety and health among non-English speaking workers.

OSHA Training Institute Education Centers also offer Spanish-language courses, both live and online. The USF OTI Education Center can deliver Spanish-language safety and health courses upon request.

Diversity on the Rise

The number of workers for whom English is a second language is expected to continue to increase in the future, therefore, taking a proactive initiative is critical to ensuring worker safety. It is imperative to remember inclusivity in safety training versus exclusivity. Furthermore, literacy and cultural differences may prevent workers from reporting or questioning potential hazards, conditions or work practices present to their employer, supervisor or co-workers.

Knowledge is power. Learn more about the ethnic backgrounds of your workers, their languages, customs and traditions. This will help you bridge the gap to better worker safety, productivity and employee morale.

If your company needs assistance with safety training resources, visit www.usfsafetyflorida.com.