What can we do about the language barriers in our workplace?

Q:

I work for a construction company and a lot of our workers don't have a good grasp of the English language. I'm worried that they're not always getting the safety messages we communicate to them. Is there anything we can do to break through these language barriers?

A:

There are over 26 million foreign workers in the United States whose first language is not English. This is a significant proportion of the workforce and the language skills gap, along with some cultural differences, can put them at a disadvantage.

Not having a complete understanding of the directives and directions given to them by their employers and supervisors might result in foreign workers unintentionally putting themselves at risk.

Unfortunately, there is no simple or all-encompassing solution for the hazards caused by language barriers in the workplace. Ideally, we would all have a good mastery of a single, common language, but that will certainly not happen overnight.

So, what can we do now to minimize the effects of the existing language barrier?

Avoid Projection and Get Creative With Your Safety Messaging

Thinking that something is common knowledge or universally understood can be a major mistake, especially when it comes to something as important as safety (after all, there's no eraser for injuries).

Safety awareness is, in part, dependent on the safety culture of our country of origin. For some foreign workers, working without proper PPE might be perfectly acceptable if it was the norm in the country they last worked in (for more on safety culture, see Face-to-Face Safety: The Right Way to Build a Safety Culture).

One way to mitigate this is to have your supervisory staff undertake diversity training with a focus on the culture of your foreign workforce. Understanding their culture, work ethic, risk acceptance, conflict avoidance level, and how open (or not) they are to admit they don’t know something will give you starting points for how to approach communication about safety. It is imperative to properly and effectively communicate standards and expectations. With a language barrier, it may be necessary to vary the way you normally deliver safety messages (find out How to Overcome Language Barriers in Safety Training).

Assess English Proficiency Before Training

Using a standardized test, assess your employee’s mastery of the English language. If they are reasonably proficient, you can choose to do orientations and training in English, tweaking them to be heavier in visual cues and verifying knowledge transfer afterwards through either written exams or hands-on skill tests. When the English mastery level is low or nonexistent, all communication, verbal or written, should be done in the employee's native language. Though it might be inconvenient and will incur a cost to the company, this will have a positive return on investment when weighed against a potentially higher rate of injury in the absence of such a program.

Regardless of the level of English mastery, it's a good idea to pick a supervisory staff for foreign workers made up of your old timers who share the same nationality/ethnicity of your newer workers (if possible). This ensures that the supervisor knows your corporate values as well as your workers' values. This also creates a higher level of trust and openness that might be difficult to achieve in the short-run with supervisors and workers of different linguistic and cultural backgrounds.

Construction work is physically intensive and construction jobs have little or no educational requirements, regardless of nationality. It is safe to assume that many of your workers do not have an extensive educational background. It is a good idea, therefore, to limit your in-class training (orientation or skills training) to the minimum time required to effectively relay information about the company’s values and expectations, and spend more time and energy in hands-on, task-specific training. Repeat key concepts, do demonstrations, and ask workers to repeatedly perform new tasks under supervision until they're confident they have mastered it.

Focus on the Active

When conveying safe work procedures focus on DOs. Ensure you have clear concise procedures and your employees are able to repeat them consistently.

Keep the DON’Ts short. There are millions of things they should not do, so creating a long list of DON’Ts is counterproductive and confusing.

Ultimately, there is no substitute for common ground and a big part of this is a shared, common language. In time, focus on assimilating these foreign workers into your corporate culture. Investing in their language skill development will pay dividends for your organization in the long run.

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Written by Karoly Ban Matei
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Karoly has worked at a senior level (both as an employee and a contractor) for organizations in the construction and manufacturing industries. He has a passion for developing and improving health and safety programs.

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