By Teri Hale
People learn, understand and retain information best if it is taught to them in their native language. If you have ever visited a foreign country where you speak little or none of the language, you know how confusing it can be.
In terms of safety training, comprehension increases when learners can give their complete attention to the content without first needing to mentally convert the information into their first language. From the beginning of the training, the learner is focused on the subject matter, not on trying to translate and interpret the material.
Misinterpretation can lead to lower productivity, lost revenue and more seriously, injury and loss of life. This is especially true in high-risk sectors such as manufacturing, oil and gas exploration, and construction. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that language barriers are a contributing factor in 25 percent of job-related accidents. Moreover, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that fatal injury rates were 69 percent higher for foreign-born Hispanic workers than for native-born Hispanic workers (who tend to have a better grasp of English).
In 2010, OSHA announced an initiative in which it directed compliance officers to observe whether employers provide employees safety training in a language they understand.
Employers who fail to properly train their employees are subject to citations and penalties.
While OSHA cannot mandate that safety training be given in any language other than English, the agency seeks to protect workers who speak English as a second language. This is especially true for employers with a largely Hispanic workforce. OSHA has a compliance assistance website for Spanish-speakers and other resources for Hispanic workers and employers.
Earlier this year, OSHA extended similar training protections to temporary workers. Field inspectors are expected to assess whether employers who use temporary workers are complying with their responsibilities under the OSH Act. The initiative follows on the heels of a spike in reports of temporary workers suffering fatal injuries on the job. In many cases, OSHA reports, the employer either provided inadequate safety training or failed to provide it at all.
To ensure the safety of your workforce, and to avoid potential liability under OSHA’s initiative, it’s imperative to offer training in employees’ native language and take steps to ensure that all safety practices are explained in an easily understood manner.
Teri Hale is the operations manager of professional learning services for UL Workplace Health and Safety.