Create a Safer Work Environment by Bridging the Language and Culture Gap

March 1, 2009
Language barriers in the workplace can not only cost time and cause frustration, but they also can be a life or death issue.

In recent years, construction, manufacturing, meat packing, hospitality and many other industries have seen a sharp rise in the number of Latino, Eastern European and Asian workers. In fact, one in every two new workers is an immigrant, and one-third of those workers are from Mexico.1

Many of these industries present safety challenges to begin with, but when you add to that mix the inability to understand safety warnings or to warn others of hazards, these industries become even more dangerous.

Immigrants comprise one in five low-wage workers.2 The majority of these low-wage immigrant workers have had very little experience with formal education. In fact, immigrants make up three-fourths of all U.S. workers with less than a ninth grade education, and on top of that, nearly two-thirds do not speak English proficiently.3

It should come at no surprise that an estimated 25 percent of job site accidents are attributable to the language barrier.4 In 2006, the construction industry was the leader in fatal work-related injuries. Of the 7 million construction workers in the United States, roughly 25 percent are of Latino origin, and though the general work-related fatality numbers are going down, Latino workers were fatally injured at a rate 70 percent higher than that of their non-Hispanic counterparts.5

It doesn't have to be this way. What can you do to improve communication and create a safer environment at your workplace?


Don't touch! Hard hat required! Be careful! Do your employees understand these directives? Can you communicate these phrases to your employees in their language? If not, there are several possible solutions.

Academic language training: Your local community college is a good resource for general ESL (English as a Second Language) and Spanish classes. Most offer multiple levels of language training. Classes are year-round and cover reading, writing, grammar, listening and speaking.

Occupational language training: It typically takes hundreds of hours of language instruction to achieve full competence — but most professionals do not have that kind of time. The need to communicate about job-specific topics means that on-site, job-specific language courses may be the best way to go.

Companies that offer this type of training can design a class for any language, be it Spanish, English, Polish, Russian or others. These short, intense classes are designed for your industry, and through needs assessments administered prior to training, classes are tailored to fit the specific needs of the business, participants' individual language levels and roles within the business.

Onsite language classes provide easier access to training, as classes take place at work and at a convenient time for employees and the company. Too often, workers do not have reliable transportation to or from a class, and having another stop between work and home makes attendance at an offsite class less appealing.

Consistent attendance is key to optimal language learning, and onsite classes help ensure this. They also provide an opportunity for your workers to come together to learn in a collaborative atmosphere.

Occupational language training is designed to target the vocabulary and communication tasks necessary to become functional in the workplace. With English training, however, there also is the opportunity to teach the English skills employees need to function outside of work as well. The goal of these short-term classes is not to become fluent, but to be functional around certain topics and tasks — and therefore be safer, more productive and more engaged.


The most crucial skills employees need on the job site are listening and speaking. The likelihood that an employee will learn how to report an accident in English is much higher than the likelihood of him/her learning enough English to decipher your safety handbook, MSDS sheets, employee manual and memos. Translate your documents, and make sure your translation is provided it in a way that's easily understandable. Here are a few tips:

  • Layout can help or hinder comprehension. Use simple charts, pictures and icons, as well as columns, bullet points, call-out boxes and bold headers

  • Avoid colloquialisms, proverbs or metaphors. Be as direct as possible

  • Avoid using phrasal verbs, such as put back, back down and do over, as these may confuse non-native English speakers

  • White space is your friend! Shoot for a 50/50 mix of text to white space

  • Ask a co-worker to review the document for clarity and accuracy.

The key to a good translation is good, clear writing. Remember that your employees' education and literacy levels may be low, so keep that in mind as you choose your phrasing.


Translation is a very important first step, but do not underestimate the need for a clear explanation of these documents.

Just as any new native English-speaking employee must be trained in your company policies — especially around safety — so must non-native English-speaking employees. We all learn best in our native language, so have an interpreter on hand for training sessions to ensure that your employees understand what is expected of them.


Language barriers create challenges, but the culture gap also can lead to miscommunications and cause added frustration — and higher risk.

When it comes to safety, it's important to understand where your people come from — both literally and figuratively. Learn about the workplace safety expectations your employees are familiar with, and you'll have a better idea of how they'll respond to U.S. safety expectations.

In the United States, great strides in safety regulation were made in reaction to the soaring number of deaths caused by increased levels of production during World War II and the chemical revolution in the 1960s. Since the passing of the OSH Act in 1970, safety standards for employees and their workplace environment have brought post-war fatalities down from 14,000 per year to a fraction of that.

In contrast, your employees' home countries may not have these safety standards or rigid enforcement. They may be unaccustomed to using personal protective equipment or hesitant to do so — either because it wasn't available to them back home or because it contradicts the underlying value of machismo. Let them know that working safely is not optional, that taking unnecessary risks is not viewed positively and that you do not consider them to be dispensable.

Knowing more about your employees' cultural backgrounds and perspectives will also improve your management skills. Understanding why there's a gap between what you want them to do and what they actually do can help you identify and develop strategies to better and more effectively address safety issues.


Be proactive. Learn some new phrases in your employees' native language and practice with them. If you are willing to risk making mistakes or sounding silly in their language, it is more likely your employees will feel more comfortable doing the same in English. To start, learn the top 20 Spanish phrases needed for workplace safety (see Figure 1).

The language and culture gap in the workplace isn't something that's going to go away. Given that, it's crucial to prepare your company and your employees to ensure a safe and productive work environment.

Dr. Jill K. Bishop is founder and president of Workforce Language Services, a Chicago-based, woman-owned company offering onsite Spanish and English as a Second Language training, diversity training, leadership development and translation/interpretation services. A linguistic anthropologist, she has taught English and Spanish around the world and has researched, written and lectured extensively on the subject of language, culture and identity. Bishop previously was responsible for the development and implementation of language, culture and diversity programs for 130 Chipotle Mexican Grill locations. In addition to her M.A. and Ph.D. in Linguistic Anthropology from UCLA, Jill has a B.A. in the teaching of Spanish from the University of Illinois. She has taught at a number of universities. For more information, call 773-292-5500, email [email protected] or visit http://www


1,2National Conference of State Legislatures Fast Facts

3Urban Institute of Nonpartisan Economic and Social Policy Research

4OSHA Study

5HealthDay News

1. Be careful Cuidado kwee-DAH-doh 2. Pay attention Pon atención pohn ah-tehn-see-OWN 3. Tell me if you don't understand Dime si no entiendes DEE-may see no ehn-tee-EHN-dace 4. Ask for help when needed Pide ayuda cuando la necesites PEE-day ah-YOO-dah KWAN-doh lah 5. I don't understand No entiendo no ehn-tee-EHN-doh 6. Don't touch No toques noh TOH-kace 7. Do not cross No cruces noh CREW-sace 8. It's required Es obligatorio ehs oh-blee-gah-TOHR-ee-oh 9. It's important Es importante ehs eem-pour-TAHN-tay 10. Report all accidents Reporta todos los accidentes inme¬diatamente ray-POUR-tah TOH-dohs lohs ahx-ee-DEHN-tace een-may-dee-ah-tah-MEHN-tay 11. Put this on Ponte esto POHN-tay EHS-toh 12. Clear the area Asegura el area ah-say-GOO-rah ehl AH-ray-ah 13. Turn it off Apágalo ah-PAH-gah-loh 14. Are you OK? ¿Estás bien? ehs-TAHS bee-EHN 15. Are you hurt? ¿Estás lastimado? ehs-TAHS lahs-tee-MAH-doh 16. Do you need a doctor? ¿Necesitas un médico? nay-say-SEE-tahs oon MAY-dee-koh 17. Do you need help? ¿Necesitas ayuda? nay-say-SEE-tahs ah-YOO-dah 18. Let me know if you're sick Avísame si estás enfermo ah-VEE-sah-may see ehs-TAHS ain-FAIR-moh 19. Call if you're sick Llama si estás enfermo YA-mah see ehs-TAHS ain-FAIR-moh 20. Call 911 Llama al nueve uno uno YA-mah ahl NWAY-vay OO-noh OO-noh

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