Keeping People Safe Even When They Don’t Understand

By Tim Coomes, Safety Advisor

While immigration is a hot issue today in the United States, immigrants have been a part of the workforce since our nation began. As each group entered the country and took positions in labor-intensive fields like construction and heavy industry, they struggled to learn English and communicate with co-workers of different backgrounds.

Today, some of those immigrants are learning English, but many still use their native languages. The influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants into the United States is very noticeable, but there may be other languages spoken on jobsites. Various neighborhoods and communities throughout the country may have a large number of foreign-born immigrants living in those areas and oftentimes, that may have an impact on the language spoken.

No matter what language is involved, having workers who are unfamiliar with English creates challenges for safety professionals. After all, a big part of managing a site’s safety involves communicating rules and hazards to workers, and how effective can that communication be when there’s a language barrier? Fortunately, you can improve understanding through some simple steps:

Get an interpreter
If you have more than a couple non-English speakers on the site, hiring an interpreter will help you ensure that they understand the basic safety rules, and will make it easier for you to answer their questions and address their concerns. Often, a contractor who employs people who speak another language will be willing to provide an interpreter.

I speak a little
It may be that someone in the crew actually has a basic command of English, and can act as your interpreter. That person can become your channel to his fellow workers. Your willingness to work in this way will be seen as cooperative by the workers, so they’ll probably be more receptive to what you’re saying. In addition, that individual may take ownership of safety issues for himself and his co-workers.

Learn basic words
You don’t have to take classes to learn a few basic terms that are important on jobsites. I frequently find myself supervising workers who speak Spanish, but I never took Spanish in school. Learning some key words, such as “lentes” for safety glasses and “casco” for hardhats, has helped me address situations I’ve encountered. Telling a worker who’s wearing a hardhat incorrectly that his “casco no bueno” may not earn a good grade from a Spanish teacher, but it does get the message across. “Necesita” means “you need,” so if I say “necesita lentes,” the worker will reach for his safety glasses. When you don’t know the words, pointing and gesturing can help. Remember that most workers want to understand you as badly you want to be understood, so be patient and encouraging.

Sometimes, it’s a must
There are situations in which it’s critical that workers on a site be able to understand and speak English. An example might be a chemical plant or a situation in which workers must be able to comprehend Material Safety Data Sheets to be able to work safely. In those cases, the contractor has probably verified that all employees understand English. Should a safety professional realize that a particular employee does not understand, he should bring it to the attention of the site supervisor or owner’s representative, because that lack of understanding creates a hazard.

Have emergency procedures
In an emergency situation, such as an approaching tornado, you have to be able to move all the workers to safety immediately. If a non-English-speaking worker does not understand your warning, he or she won’t know what actions to take. Be sure that your safety plan spells out how emergency situations will be conveyed to all workers on the site. If you have non-English-speakers on the site, and the plan doesn’t address emergencies, revise it.

Can they read?
One more thing to consider: illiteracy rates are higher in the U.S. than many people realize, so some workers on a given site who have a good command of spoken English may be unable to read safety materials. Compounding the problem is the fact that they may be too embarrassed to admit it. That’s why you don’t want to rely too heavily on written documents, and should focus on talking with workers about safety. A laborer may not be able to read your brochure about fall protection, but he’ll pay close attention when you explain and demonstrate how it works.

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