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How to Address Language Barriers at Work

In the last 20 years, Spanish has become a major language on construction sites. The same thing is happening in other industries. Based on a recent report from the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Hispanic employment in the private sector nearly doubled from 1990 to 2001, reaching 11 percent in 2001.

The question safety professionals need to ask themselves is this: Are we doing all we can to ensure that our Hispanic (and other non-English-speaking) workers are getting the safety message?

Language Barriers Cause Accident

The root of many work-related fatalities is a disconnect in communication. Here's the formula:

Language Barrier + Lack of Hazard Awareness + Inadequate Safety Training = Incident

Statistics bear this out. They show that Hispanic workers are suffering workplace injuries at relatively high rates:

  • The majority of workers killed in recent construction catastrophes in the San Francisco Bay area were workers with little or no English language skills;
  • In 2000 alone, 277 Hispanic workers lost their lives in construction-related incidents;
  • According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 1997 and 2002, the total fatalities in the construction rose by slightly more than 1 percent. During this same period, the number of Hispanic fatalities in the industry shot up by almost 50 percent.
    This situation is unacceptable and we as safety professionals need to modernize our thinking to address it.

From Reactive to Proactive

Too often safety is thought of as a reaction to an incident. We've all seen the scramble to find a consultant or locate missing training documents after an injury. Is this really the way we want to run our business?

Proactive safety involves ensuring that workers have the training and knowledge to recognize hazards on the job. When workers know what the dangers are, they're better equipped to protect themselves.

One proactive step supervisors can take is to learn some key phrases in the language of their crews. Knowing how to say "Get out of the way" or "Look out" could mean the difference between life and death. [There's a glossary of some key safety phrases in Spanish in the Tools section that you can access if you're a SafetyXChange member.]

The 5 Components of Bilingual Training

A more systematic and effective approach to ensuring worker safety, though, is to offer bilingual training. Basically, bilingual training entails the same effort as safety training in English, just conducted in another language. It would include:

1. Tailgate/Toolbox Safety Meetings

One of the best places to begin bilingual training is with these meetings (required every 10 days). You could either hold the meeting in a bilingual format together or split the groups in half to receive the same materials in each language.

2. OSHA Regulatory Training

Training materials and multimedia should be presented to your crew in both languages.

3. OSHA Required Postings

Federal and State employee posters should be available on the site in both languages.

4. Safety Awareness Posters

Safety awareness posters in English and Spanish (or whatever language your crews speak) will help encourage positive acceptance of safety.

5. Bilingual Safety Shorts

Bilingual safety newsletters distributed to employees can help keep the safety vision alive at home.


The initial costs of bilingual training are for translating training materials and ensuring that a professional trainer is available to conduct the class in the second language. But providing bilingual training is a logical solution that will provide return on investment that exceeds costs and, in many cases, your expectations. If governmental regulation is your motivator, then remember that OSHA requires safety training to be provided to employees in the dominant language on the job. And how often do you hear conversations on the jobsite only in English?