Workplace Safety Blog Post

Workplace Safety for Non-English Speakers

Diverse Workforce

As American workplaces become increasingly diverse, language can become an obstacle for many businesses. Workers who don’t speak English or for whom English is not their first language may struggle to understand workplace procedures. When the procedures in question are related to safety, lack of comprehension or misunderstanding are especially problematic.

Non-English-speaking workers may struggle to read training documents, safety signs and other written materials. They also may not feel very comfortable asking for clarification in English or in the language they are most comfortable with because they fear being misunderstood or getting into trouble.

To effectively create a positive safety culture for a workforce that speaks multiple languages, safety managers and business owners should seek ways to simplify communication, make workers comfortable and reinforce correct behaviors.

A recent report from the Brookings Institution found there are 19.2 million working-age adults in the U.S. who speak and understand English with limited proficiency, and it is important that the safety of these workers receives appropriate attention across the many industries that employ these people.

Strategies for Communicating Safety to Non-English Speakers

The suggestions below can help increase safety for your non-English-speaking workers, so consider whether any of them would work well in your facility.

1. Make It Visual

Safety Signs

We often talk about how having a visual workplace can improve communication, and this holds true for workers with a limited understanding of English. Posting safety signs, labels, floor markings and other clear visual cues can help these workers understand the hazards and instructions of the workplace.

To facilitate comprehension of visuals like safety signs, try to focus on images or pictograms that will be easily understood. “Warning” and “Caution” signs, for example, have a standard format that uses an image and basic text. When looking at the sign to the right, an employee might not be able to read the text, but he or she will know that something is flammable. You could consider printing these signs in more than one language, too. This is most feasible if your workers as a group only speak one language besides English (instead of many different languages).

GHS Labeling, Pictograms
GHS pictograms are standardized symbols for communicating about chemical hazards.

In general, it’s a good idea to use standard colors and symbols on your signs and labels as employees may already recognize the signs (like fire exit signs, for example) by the way they look. The increasing use of the globally harmonized system (GHS) labels for hazardous chemicals may also help workers recognize the different types of hazards. The goal of GHS is to make communication of hazards between companies and workers in different countries simpler, so consider using these and other standard symbols in your visual workplace.

2. Translate

Workers need to receive training and safety information in a language they understand. Otherwise it’s unlikely that all that important information will be understood. When conveying safety information to workers, have a translator on hand to communicate the information and to answer questions. This person could be an outside translator, a bilingual supervisor or even a bilingual employee (though if one of your employees translates, you may need to provide him or her with training ahead of time about what they need to communicate and emphasize).

Non-English-speaking Workers
Listing information in more than one language can help employees on the job.

Companies should also consider hiring a translation service to translate safety materials into the languages their employees speak. Be sure to test these materials out with a native speaker before distributing them or posting them in the workplace, though, as inaccurate translations or variations in dialect can lead to confusion. Before having anything translated, it’s important to make sure the materials you have are clear in English first, too; unclear messaging in the original language will only get more diluted after translation.

3. Training

Having the translator we just mentioned on hand during training sessions is key, but there are other things you can do during training to make sure non-English-speaking workers learn everything they need to know.

First, try to make training as hands-on as possible. Showing workers the tasks they will need to perform and the safety measures they will need to take (such as donning gloves, turning off the power to a machine before cleaning it or only walking in certain areas of the facility) will help these workers understand and remember what they need to do.

Safety Training
Try having supervisors follow up with employees about safety information.

During training, watch workers for signs of comprehension like nodding or note taking (if applicable). Also leave plenty of extra time at the end of the session so employees can ask questions in the language they feel comfortable with. Remember that some non-English speakers may feel nervous asking questions in front of a group, so follow up periodically to make sure everything was understood. This could involve inspecting work operations or asking supervisors to confirm their employees understand safety procedures.

4. Language Learning

While workplaces cannot insist their workers learn English, they can encourage workers to learn vocabulary that’s relevant to the tasks at hand. Learning job-related vocabulary will help speakers of different languages communicate with each other, and it will help workers with limited English proficiency feel more confident at work.

A company could encourage this kind of learning by having language lessons, distributing language-learning materials or having workers attend English as a Second Language classes outside the worksite. To avoid overwhelming workers, do try to focus on the most important terminology, though.

Creative Safety Supply

Focus on Your Workers

As a safety manager or business owner, it’s your job to make sure your employees feel safe and comfortable at work. This means accommodating workers who don’t understand English well. When companies don’t take the extra time to communicate effectively with these workers, they risk putting these employees in danger that could lead to accidents and injuries.

The best ways to interact with these workers apply to many workers, though. Using simple visuals, clear instructions and training with adequate time for feedback and questions benefits all workers. Ultimately, effective safety training always requires considering your audience, so make sure you take the language preferences and abilities of your audience into consideration, too.

Need safety signs and labels in languages other than English? Many Spanish-language options are available for many products. You can also print safety labels yourself with an industrial label printer, which will give you the ability to adapt visuals to your workplace in any languages you might need. For more information, visit Creative Safety Supply.

Additional Resources