Workplace Safety

Breaking the Safety Training Language Barrier

Many organizations have employees for whom English may not be their first language, and it’s important that these language barriers are overcome during safety training.

Increased diversity in the workplace may create language and literacy barriers. When workers don’t speak English or have limited proficiency, they cannot communicate effectively with supervisors, coworkers, or customers. They may also have difficulty comprehending the requirements of their jobs.

In addition to problems with speaking English, some employees may not read well either. Even in their own language, there is a chance that some workers may be illiterate or only able to read a little.

Without proper action on the part of management, language and literacy barriers can make it difficult or impossible for some employees to function effectively and safely in the workplace. These barriers can also make interaction and teamwork among workers more difficult and less efficient.

This means training issues take on even greater significance when the topic is safety.

Training Still Required

Failure to adequately train non-English-speaking employees about safety issues could not only result in lower productivity or more errors but it could also result in injury or death. The stakes are high, and your response must be equally vigilant.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) says that an employer’s responsibility to provide employees with information and training about safety and health hazards doesn’t go away because an employee can’t understand standard English-language training programs. When that is the case, employers must inform and train these workers in a language they can understand.

When training employees with limited English skills, you must take special steps to ensure the training is effective:

  • Speak slowly, explain fully, and repeat important points several times.
  • Choose the simplest words and avoid technical jargon. If you must use technical terms, be sure to explain them in simple terms.
  • Use a translator with groups of employees who have only minimal English skills.
  • Demonstrate while you speak, and use visual aids, such as pictures and props, to supplement your words.
  • Encourage participation. Be patient, and help employees express their thoughts and questions about the topic.
  • Have employees practice new skills during the training session so that you can see if they’ve understood.
  • Use feedback when training non-English-speaking employees to confirm comprehension. Also, allow extra time for questions.
  • Provide handouts in the language or languages trainees speak and read.
  • Follow up on the job to make sure that there have been no misunderstandings and that employees correctly apply what they’ve learned in training.
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