Following safety and health rules is a challenge for any worker. There’s a lot to learn and remember about federal standards, company policies and task-specific protocols. Imagine how much harder all this must be for those who know little or no English in a workplace where almost no one speaks their language. It’s also tough for those who must train and manage these workers, and for those responsible for their safety and health.
What are the safety-related challenges that arise from language and culture differences? Why has the issue taken on greater importance than in the past? And, what are some organizations and employers doing to identify and solve the problems? Those are among questions asked and answered in this compliance report.
familiar metaphor of
A few years back, then-acting OSHA chief R. Davis Layne addressed the subject of safety and the multi-ethnic workforce. He told the American Bar Association’s Committee on Occupational Safety and Health Law that effective training will be the key to overcoming barriers posed by non-English-speaking workers. Layne highlighted the seriousness of the situation when he told the group about a worker who was struck by the boom of a machine he was operating during the demolition of an office building. The worker left the machine while it was running, after having inadvertently pressed the boom control pedal. Layne explained that the safety instruction book was written in English, but the employee only understood Polish.
noted a 40 percent hike in Hispanic fatalities in the construction industry, and
pointed to a high rate of illiteracy among many non-English-speaking workers,
which further complicates safety communication and compliance. Problems also
arise in the course of OSHA inspections if employees are unable to describe
working conditions, or if translators are not available to interpret. OSHA has
promised to do more to reach out, especially in
Meet Joseph McFadden
McFadden, the president of McFadden & Associates in
One of the primary problems that faced the hospital and its safety director was assuring these workers that if they made a mistake, they would not be deported as a result.
“They would tend to hide injuries and make themselves sicker, and we didn’t want this to happen,” recalls McFadden.
Most of the foreign workers were not highly educated and found work in less desirable areas of the hospital including housekeeping, the laundry, foodservice and material handling. There, they encountered considerable risks, including exposure to chemicals and ergonomic hazards.
Consider Root Causes
A serious training deficiency was illustrated by the case of a Thai worker employed at the hospital. Using pantomime and color-coding strategies, the man had been trained to operate a deep-extraction carpet-cleaning machine, including filling the equipment with the required cleaner. A most important lesson was to use warm water, rather than hot or cold. The worker, assigned to the “graveyard” shift, appeared to be trained. He was on duty soon after a major snowstorm hit the area, which took a big toll on the hospital’s many carpeted areas. The Thai employee was eager to do a good job in view of the super-dirty carpets and, on his own, decided to use hot water, which he believed would have greater impact. As well, he added three “squirts” of the chemical cleaner, rather than one, as required.
“What we hadn’t taken the time to teach him was that the hotter the water, and the more chemical, the more fumes are produced. Suddenly, we had fumes overpowering staff and patients, and causing an entire wing to be evacuated,” says McFadden.
McFadden took the position, contrary to that of some managers, that the employee did not deserve to be fired for his error. Rather, McFadden began to look more deeply into what had happened and why. Apart from insufficient training, he discovered other root causes. Because of the late hour, few supervisors were on duty at the time of the incident. In order to ask a question, the worker would have had to page or phone the supervisor on duty in a separate part of the hospital. But McFadden believed the worker had not been trained to use the phone and pager system. Even had he been able to call, there was little certainty that he could have made his point verbally.
Upon further investigation, McFadden learned that in Thai and other Asian cultures, a worker does not bother a boss except for extremely serious reasons (which this worker did not perceive). Employees are shown how to do their tasks, and are expected to perform them with few questions asked.
Awareness and Action
years, McFadden has developed strategies that help employers understand the
problems they face and take proactive steps to avoid the kinds of problems
experienced by the
employers ask him if they can have an untrained non-English-speaking person do
something simple, such as sweep the facility. But what happens when the sweeping
task takes the worker near hazardous materials that could spill, or takes him
under stacked items that may fall? Every task, no matter how simple or by whom
it’s performed, should have a job hazard analysis, according to McFadden. He
also speaks with employers about the importance of having labels and material
safety data sheets in a language that employees can understand. And, he reminds
them that the fact that an employee appears to be able to speak English does not
mean he or she can read and write it. That also holds true for the workers’ own
language – many who seek and find work in the
McFadden explains that a factor that can make training especially costly is that it must be repeated frequently to accommodate the high turnover frequent at lower levels of employment where non-English-speaking workers are often found.
Sharing the Knowledge
Among other successful ideas and techniques he passes on to his clients, McFadden:
- Pairs a new, non-English-speaking worker with a seasoned employee. This helps the newcomer learn safety rules and language and promotes cultural understanding between the workers.
- Suggests that employers select some non-American holidays celebrated by employees and organize workplace observances. This gives employees from other countries the feeling that their culture is respected and better understood by others.
- Reminds employers that when employees are faced with differences, they sometimes resort to horseplay and practical jokes, gestures that can lead to serious injury. Human resources and safety professionals should work together to root out such behavior.
- Conducts safety training in both English and the language of the native speakers, using translators. McFadden also makes liberal use of visual aids to demonstrate hazards. For example, to illustrate the importance of goggles, he uses a “head” form he purchased from a beauty supply shop. He places safety goggles on the head and splashes pretend acid (colored water) on it. When the goggles are removed, the students can see how well they protect.
Avoiding Culture Clash
Translating safety manuals and procedures into another
language is essential, but it doesn’t get at the problem of cultural differences
that so strongly influence how employees hear information and what they do with
it. It’s an extremely important consideration in job safety, says Dr. Jivan
Saran, professor of safety and science technology at
people believe that safety is safety, whether you’re in
Saran says that whereas many employers understand that linguistic differences can affect safety, they’re far less aware of the impact of cultural differences. For example, some ethnic groups are more likely to respect older than younger people, a factor that should be understood when selecting a safety trainer. Saran believes that Americans are less concerned with age, and more concerned that the person in front of them demonstrates authority. He also observes that societies differ considerably in gender-related areas. Some cultures are strongly matriarchal or patriarchal, differences that should be considered when training and managing employees. Among some peoples, machismo is a strong factor and can influence whether a worker will wear protective equipment or take unwise risks.
Watch Your Tongue!
Both Saran and McFadden encourage employers to select their translators carefully. They must be highly aware of nuances and shades of meaning. The English word “safety,” for example, loosely translates into Spanish as “seguridad,” which also means security.
“In this country,” says Saran, “when we refer to ‘safety,’ we could be talking about the safety of our bank accounts, or the importance of ‘being safe by choosing the right deodorant.’”
year, Saran was on a business trip in
Construction Industry Builds Bridges
the most impressive progress in overcoming language and cultural barriers has
been made toward Hispanic workers in the construction industry – and for good
reason. One government estimate suggests that the Hispanic workforce in the
Safety director John Dusch told The Arizona Republic: “We realized we had a problem. The fact that we were not able to communicate with our employees was affecting our productivity and, most importantly, our safety records.”
In addition to the classes for managers, MKB is planning an English class for its Spanish-speaking workers.
Dusch: “It’s a whole different culture out there, in
Power & Light (FPL) is providing voluntary English classes for Hispanic
construction employees at its
Speak the Language of Safety
Those interviewed for this article and other experts reiterate that employers must do all they can to respect differences among employees and encourage English-speaking workers to do the same. When that happens, the result is a more positive, more productive workplace where people feel good about one another and take safety – their own and that of their fellow workers – more seriously.
About the Author:
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