By Cesar Esqueda
You’ve no doubt heard that OSHA is stepping up enforcement of many workplace rules. One area that’s being watched closely is training and communication with workers who are not native English speakers. Companies are being required to provide training, training materials, and safety policies in their workers’ native languages.
For years, many companies dealt with non-English speakers in minimal ways. The most common was putting up the required jobsite posters in Spanish. Under the new rules, that won’t be sufficient.
If your company truly believes in the value of worker safety and expects everyone on your worksites to abide by your safety culture, you already recognize the importance of going beyond simple compliance. In fact, you may already meet the requirement to make all your materials and policies available in your workers’ languages.
That’s a good thing, but at a practical level, it may not be enough to ensure the safety of everyone on your jobsite. You see, language issues create complex challenges you may not have considered.
For example, because most American workers have completed high school (or earned a GED), many employers assume that immigrants, resident aliens, and other non-native speakers have attained the same levels of literacy. However, many new arrivals come from countries where they receive far less (or poorer-quality) education. Others who were raised in the U.S. in homes where English wasn’t spoken may have barely made it through school.
Why is this important? For one thing, most safety materials are written at a level that assumes a certain degree of literacy. If a worker is below that level, he may not understand the words and language that are being used in those materials particularly where technical terms and complex concepts are being discussed. If a simple sign prohibiting parking in parts of the jobsite may be misunderstood, how will the worker grasp an MSDS that includes a warning about smoking while using flammable materials?
Given human nature and personal pride, that worker isn’t likely to admit that he doesn’t understand the information. If a supervisor asks him directly, he’ll probably nod (especially if he’s worried that saying he doesn’t understand might cost him his job).
One way to address the literacy issue is to move away from printed materials to in-person training with bilingual instructors and videos in the native language. A worker who lacks reading comprehension skills will be able to follow the steps that are demonstrated to him in a video or a presentation.
However, that isn’t always a simple solution, either. As an example, many employers assume that Spanish is Spanish. They don’t realize that the Spanish spoken in Northern Mexico is very different from that spoken in El Salvador, which is different from what’s spoken in Puerto Rico, and very different from what’s used in Spain. So materials that are written in Mexican Spanish may not be clear to an El Salvadorian immigrant, and a Puerto Rican native speaker may use colloquial phrases that don’t quite make sense to a Guatemalan.
The problem is compounded when there are multiple languages on jobsites. The growing influx of immigrants from Africa (where several languages may be spoken within one country), the Middle East, and the Far East along with workers leaving Eastern European countries for opportunities in the U.S. mean that a large contractor could contend with more than a dozen very different languages on a single jobsite.
Language issues can appear in other ways, too. Take a moment to sit down in one of your company’s forklifts or a similar piece of equipment. Look at all the switches, gauges, and instruction and warning placards. How many of them are written in English? How will someone who doesn’t understand English or just knows enough to get by know what to do if something goes wrong?
It’s not reasonable to expect equipment manufacturers to provide labels and placards in all of the possible languages that may be present on your jobsite. However, a company can create a simple manual or diagram that includes basic translations for the switches and gauges. Training sessions can explain what all the controls are used for, and what precautions are needed.
As with all facets of workplace safety, the starting point is awareness. The better employers understand the challenges of a multilingual workplace, the better they’ll recognize the steps they need to take to protect their workers (and themselves). While many safety-conscious companies are already addressing these issues, OSHA’s increased enforcement will give an extra nudge to companies that have been slow to see the need. They may find the extra responsibilities frustrating, but in the long run, they’ll protect the well-being of their workers and reap the financial benefits of a safer workplace.
Cesar delivers Spanish language safety training at Safety Management Group. Click Here for a listing of upcoming courses or call Cesar at 317-610-1163. Article copyright ©2010 Safety Management Group All rights reserved.