Overcoming language problems at work

By Jeff Alfonso

This article is posted with permission from LATINO NEWSPAPER. It was originally published on August 10, 2017 in issue #393

Latino workers comprise 15% of the workforce in the United States. In construction, the average is 30% and can even be higher among roofers. Other industries also employ a higher percentage of Hispanic workers.

The number of injuries occurring among the Hispanic population is severely disproportionate to its size.  Most foreign-born Latinos have little or no understanding of English.  They are deprived of safety training when they sit through English language safety classes.  Sometimes, they are given safety videos to watch in their own language. Although this option is inexpensive and seems better than doing nothing, it is akin to placing a Band-Aid® on a gunshot wound.  Typically, videos are ineffective in truly motivating them to safety action.

Politically, this subject can be a hot topic. Often, it is said that if you are going to work and live in this country, you should learn English! This is the argument for not providing training in their language. The funny thing is that you would get no argument from most Hispanic workers. They typically agree and have the earnest desire to learn English, and in fact, many do.

However, for many, the challenge can be daunting. Here are the reasons why:

  1. Many of the Latino workers driven to find work in this country have very little or no education. How can you expect someone who cannot read in his native language to learn a new one?
  2. Many Hispanic workers work long hours in order to provide for families at home. They have very little time or energy to devote to learning a new language.

Whatever your opinion on this matter, we are all obligated to obey the law. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA®) requires all companies to provide a safe workplace. For this reason, it states that:

  1. Training be done in the language that the workers best understands
  2. Safety Data Sheets describing how to protect workers from chemicals must also be kept in all the languages spoken by employees
  3. Chemical labels need to be easily understood

These OSHA® requirements make it clear that if a company chooses to hire someone with limited English proficiency (LEP), it must provide proper training labeling in the LEP person’s language.

The two most common ways that this can be done is by hiring bilingual professionals to transmit the information to employees or by hiring interpreters.


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