Nov 30, 2021

Overcoming Language Barriers In Workplace Safety

4 min read

We’ve discussed removing language barriers in workers’ compensation in the past, but we can do more to protect our diverse workforces.


We can start addressing the problem at the source.


According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under the United States Department of Labor, language barriers contribute to 25% of job-related accidents.

But we can work to change this statistic. Those with limited English proficiency don’t have to suffer at disproportionate rates.

By offering clients inclusive safety recommendations, we can overcome the language barriers in the workplace and significantly reduce workplace injuries.

How Language Barriers Impact Workplace Safety

Language barriers increase the likelihood of injury and death on the job when workers with limited English proficiency don’t know how to do their jobs safely. This is common when employees misunderstand training and instruction due to language differences.
Even great, driven workers can injure themselves if they mishear a few words.
Intense, laborious jobs and those that require handling large machineries—such as construction, agriculture and manufacturing—are more prone to workplace accidents, but they can occur anywhere.
To promote on-the-job safety, one has to train employees in best practices regarding:
1. How to prevent injury – how to complete a job correctly
2. How to protect themselves in case of injury – what safety gear to wear
3. What to do if they get injured – who to report to and where to get medical attention
Proper communication of each stage is critical. Even if someone prevents injury perfectly, someone else’s mistake can put them in danger. If they don’t know what to do when injured, the situation can escalate.

It Matters Now More Than Ever

The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that Hispanic and Asian populations will more than double by 2060, and those once considered minorities will make up 57% of the population. Meanwhile, it expects the non-Hispanic white population to peak in 2024 and then begin declining.
As our population diversifies, it will become increasingly important to accommodate those who haven’t perfected English.
Doing so is the right thing to do and how to thrive: studies show that businesses in the top 25% for diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above the industry median.
For businesses, this means profit. For workers’ comp services who make the right recommendations, this means working with clients that are more likely to grow.
OSHA standards also require that businesses overcome language barriers when they train their employees:
“…employee training required by OSHA standards must be presented in a manner that employees can understand…this position applies to all of the agency’s agriculture, construction, general industry, and maritime training requirements.”
Of course, this means using an employee’s native language if English is too difficult to understand.

How to Protect Non-English Speaking Employees


Adjust Training Programs as Needed

Make sure that your clients meet OSHA standards by providing training that all of their workers understand. This may require adjusting their typical strategy, but how much so depends on how well their employees speak English.
For limited English proficient workers, hiring an on-site interpreter to help with training sessions is the safest option. For those with a decent amount of proficiency, speaking slower and enunciating clearly may be enough.
In either circumstance, using visual aids and demonstrations can help.
If you’re an insurance provider that offers safety training materials, be sure to provide these materials in multiple languages.

Pair Employees

Another great tip is to have employees work in pairs based on experience at the company.
Pairing employees allows an experienced worker to supervise and help train new hires, guaranteeing that they understand and practice their training.
For dangerous jobs, pairing up can eliminate dangers if someone is available to keep an extra eye on tasks and offer a warning in case of trouble.
If most jobs aren’t two-person jobs and the company doesn’t have the staff or budget, suggest pairing workers for just their first few days or weeks of work. How long will depend on how dangerous and complex the job is.

Use On-the-Job Interpreters

If a company has many non-English speaking workers, it may be worth hiring an on-the-job interpreter.
An interpreter can work with the manager to help oversee and instruct employees, ensuring smooth communication and understanding on both sides. Improving communication also helps the manager and employees do their job more effectively.

Translate Written Materials

For non-English speaking employees who can read in their native language, translating written materials is a great way to improve workplace safety. Materials that you can translate include safety signs and handouts such as rulebooks and procedures.
This practice also allows workers to review their training on their own time as needed.
Still, not every non-English speaking worker had access to education and knows how to read—even in their language. It’s essential to assess each worker’s literacy before relying on translated material.

Consider Paying for English Classes

Some employers may consider paying for their employees to take English classes when they learn of the impact of language barriers on their business. Providing English classes allows workers to improve their communication skills over time and encourages loyalty to the company.
While forcing everyone to speak the same language can worsen barriers in terms of isolation and trust formation, giving employees the option to learn is valuable.

Protect All Workers Equally

Making safety a priority is more than making sure injured workers are taken care of; it starts with making sure they never get hurt at all. By keeping language barriers in mind and making the appropriate recommendations to businesses, you can help ensure that every worker goes home safe each day.