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Tips for Conducting Safety Training at a Multilingual Workplace
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The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is partnering with Spanish-language television network Telemundo, the Center for Construction Research and Training, and the Hollywood Health & Safety Society for an innovative safety effort. On April 1, an occupational safety storyline began airing on a popular Telemundo telenovela, "Pecados Ajenos." The storyline involves what happens in the life of a young Hispanic woman after she suffers a serious injury from a fall from a ladder on the job. Also presented as part of the storyline are safety precautions workers can take to prevent similar falls.

Although it's unlikely you have the budget available to produce television shows to enhance your health and safety training, the NIOSH-Telemundo partnership highlights a concept you should keep in mind to improve your safety training program: the need to recognize and address language and cultural barriers.

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Language Barriers

Do you hand out written materials but cover only the highlights during your toolbox talk? Doing so is likely ineffective for a number of reasons. If you hand out materials only in English and you have workers who speak English poorly and cannot read English, they may understand only a portion of what you say and none of what you have written. There's also no guarantee that providing written materials in a worker's native language will help—he or she may be illiterate. And materials written in English may not be effective for your English-speaking workers either. Approximately 15 to 20 percent of the adult workforce in the United States is functionally illiterate, meaning they cannot adequately perform basic tasks such as filling out an employment application; understanding a legally binding contract; following written instructions; reading a newspaper article; reading traffic signs; or, in this case, reading and comprehending the safety materials you've handed out. Functional illiteracy is particularly prevalent in low-wage jobs.

There are ways, however, to help overcome language barrier issues in health and safety training. Here are tips:

  • Know your audience so you can make alterations as necessary to ensure they get the most out of the training.

  • Whenever possible, use both written and verbal safety training and instruction in the worker's native language (including when using comprehension and certification tests). Bilingual CD and DVD training programs can be helpful.

  • Use pictorial signage in the workplace and clear illustrations in training programs.

  • If your safety budget is small and resources are limited, check with your workers' compensation insurer and Cal/OSHA to see what multilanguage materials they may have available.

  • If language barriers pose a significant problem at your workplace, consider offering classes in reading literacy and English as a second language.

Cultural Barriers

Cultural barriers can exist on many levels. They can be the result of having employees who have emigrated from countries that do not put much emphasis on workplace safety (or even having workers who are originally from a different region of the United States with less safety oversight than that applied in California). Cultural barriers may result when instructors simply assume certain information is "general knowledge" in the industry, which can cause problems with and create confusion for employees new to the industry, those who have worked in a different region of the country, or those who have worked in a different country. And cultural barriers can exist because the employee has worked at another company where safety was generally ignored or not taken seriously. Whatever the reason, cultural barriers can render your training ineffective if not addressed.

Here are ways you can address cultural barriers:

  • Administer a pre-test before new hire training sessions to determine what a new employee knows (and what his or her attitudes are) about safety.

  • Have a directed discussion during initial safety training about company philosophy regarding risk-taking and reporting unsafe conditions and incidents.

  • Follow up initial training with regular one-on-one reinforcement about your company's expectations when it comes to safety, particularly with workers you think are at high risk.

  • Have your safest experienced employees act as mentors to new employees.

A diverse workforce has many positive aspects for both businesses and individuals. However, it can also complicate safety training. By recognizing that language and cultural barriers can interfere with the message you're trying to get across, and by addressing them, you can improve your safety training's impact.

We'd like to know:

  • Is your workplace multilingual?

  • Have you encountered difficulties communicating safety procedures to your workforce?

  • How do you tailor your safety training to overcome language and cultural barriers?

Click here to answer the questions.

See the results to the Multilingual Training Poll Questions.

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