Safety Training for Diverse Worker Populations

Feb. 18, 2003
Safety training that overcomes language, literacy and cultural barriers pays big dividends. This hands-on approach was recognized by OSHA as a

From construction sites to manufacturing plants, America's blue-collar work force stands as a testament to diversity. Yet behind the scenes, the idea of multi-culturalism often is scorned as nothing more than a tribute to political correctness.

Smart employers, however, are learning that cultural sensitivity has much deeper meaning than previously thought. By truly understanding and respecting the literacy, cultural and language differences of their workers, companies stand to gain financially while creating a safer work environment for employees.

Perhaps most importantly, by tailoring training programs to fit the needs of individual employees, companies decrease injury rates, increase work force productivity, promote loyalty and lower insurance expenses.

Breaking the Barriers

Businesses have come to accept the simple truth that worker training pays big dividends. But when faced with the task of providing classes for functionally illiterate or non-English-speaking workers, even the most committed employers sometimes shrink from the responsibility to train.

These workers, however, often are the ones who most desperately need training. That is why the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) launched a 2002 campaign to better protect non-English-speaking workers, who are considered to be at high risk of on-the-job injury. OSHA recognized that more than 10 million Americans speak little or no English, and one in five Americans does not speak English at home.

In the Hispanic population, for example, numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the fatality rate for Hispanic employees climbed by more than 11 percent in 2000, while deaths for all other groups declined. OSHA attributed this increase, at least in part, to the language barrier.

Aside from the gruesome statistics on injuries and death, poor training for non-English-speaking workers also results in low productivity, high turnover and other expenses for their employers.

While some employers recognize these statistics on non-English-speaking workers, almost none fully understand the importance of cultural differences in the workplace. A large portion of America's non-skilled and semi-skilled labor has immigrated from Mexico and other countries. They bring with them a set of beliefs regarding work ethic, family and company loyalty. Only by understanding and reacting positively to these beliefs can an employer maximize the productivity of workers from other cultures.

Another challenge lies in training semi-literate workers, many of whom speak English as their first language. These workers lack the learning style and reading abilities that many employers assume they have.

For these businesses, the answer may lie in a kinesthetic method of worker training. This method combines the obvious benefits of teaching workers in their first languages with the improved results of a hands-on, practice-makes-perfect approach. Plus, this culturally intensive training includes sessions for supervisors and managers, helping them to understand and respect their employees.

Hands-on Training Produces Real Results

The very nature of training and safety programs makes it difficult to measure return-on-investment. After all, how can a company determine the number of accidents that would have happened without training, as well as the human and financial costs of these incidents?

But at one of the largest municipal construction projects in the Dallas area, irrefutable evidence has emerged to confirm the value of a bilingual, hands-on work safety program like the one implemented there by BEST Institute Inc.

Every worker on the project is required to attend 40 hours of training in basic occupational safety and health procedures. Nearly 8,000 of the project's workers have been trained during the last two years, with sessions conducted in both English and Spanish. Perhaps most importantly, the training features a culturally sensitive, hands-on approach that engages workers, helping them learn new skills to apply in their day-to-day jobs.

Compared to a national average of 3.9 injuries per 200,000 manhours, this project has seen only 0.3 injuries. As a result, only $600,000 in workers' compensation claims have been made against the $2.6 million that managers expected to spend in the first year of the project.

Perhaps the clearest evidence of the training program's success shows up in the average cost of worker's compensation claims. The average claim per worker trained has totaled $1,500, versus $10,000 for those who were not trained. In the final analysis, lives and millions of dollars have been saved.

A Different Kind of Classroom

Traditionally, training for employees consisted of lectures, videos and other classroom-based methods. This approach often has little impact on workers who are not native English speakers. And they are not the only ones. Workers in low-skilled and semi-skilled jobs typically have low literacy rates no matter what their cultural backgrounds.

While the audio-visual approach may work with mid-level managers, unskilled and semi-skilled employees work with their hands to create a living. So it stands to reason that they would best receive training in a hands-on environment.

BEST Institute has created a living laboratory for workers, where overhead projectors and notepads have been replaced with equipment found in real-world work environments such as ladders, sawhorses, hammers and nails.

The hands-on laboratory avoids basing any evaluation on reading or writing skills, and instead focuses on activities undertaken by employees on a daily basis. In this environment, employees are shown how to safely and efficiently perform certain tasks.

After the instructor demonstrates a skill, each worker must successfully duplicate the instructor's technique. And if the students do not succeed at their first effort, they must continue trying until they get it right. This outcome-based approach ensures each employee truly understands how to safely and correctly perform his or her duties.

The approach also improves the relationship between English-speaking and non-English-speaking workers. In the case of the Dallas-area municipal project, training classes were conducted in both English and Spanish. Everyone from front-line construction workers to project managers and company owners attended the same sessions.

This equality-based approach creates a sense of trust and respect between classmates, said Arnold Narro, a bilingual instructor for BEST Institute. As a result, Spanish-speaking workers who might not have openly questioned their supervisors in the past were given the tools and encouragement to speak up when they saw potential safety hazards, Narro said.

On the flip side, English-speaking workers developed a stronger sense of confidence in their non-English-speaking colleagues, since everybody had the same level of safety training.

Savings in Human and Financial Terms

Workers who are trained up-front in their primary languages and with sensitivity to their cultures bring a slew of benefits to their employers. But training is just a first step. Employers also must put workers in their comfort zone, surrounding them with people of their own culture. This frees them to speak up among the group, asking for help and information.

The rewards for this strategy are significant, both in financial and human terms. First and foremost, these employees suffer fewer injuries. This reduces workers' compensation claims, as well as the overall cost of insurance premiums, damaged equipment, wasted raw materials and pain and suffering.

Well-trained employees also vastly increase their productivity. With formal instruction, they avoid picking up the bad habits of other workers who might demonstrate less-desirable work techniques.

And no matter what their language, well-trained workers are more likely to stick around, reducing turnover and its commensurate costs. Employees view training as part of a career path, creating loyalty and a sense of place.

These benefits can be gained by companies of all sizes. While in-house training is more common in larger companies, it can actually be of greater importance to smaller businesses. These smaller companies have fewer resources to withstand the negative financial impact of a large workers' compensation claim, lawsuit or boosted insurance premiums. To guard against these losses, smaller businesses should focus a greater amount of time and attention on training their workers for health and safety.

What to Look For

Companies faced with the challenge of overcoming language, cultural and literacy barriers should look for training providers that offer:

  • Programs that are recognized by OSHA as a "National Best Practice"
  • Bilingual classes that address cultural issues
  • Programs that recognize the dignity of every worker, regardless of their background
  • Programs that treat all workers, from CEOs to unskilled employees, with courtesy and professionalism
  • Programs that minimize literacy requirements.

Companies must take immediate steps to provide appropriate training either in-house or through qualified training providers and protect their employees. In return, employers will be rewarded with increased productivity, lower turnover and reduced costs. Plus, companies score a moral victory when employees, particularly those frontline workers who are at most risk , are kept safe from harm.

Those companies choosing not to properly train their employees especially vulnerable employees facing language, literacy and cultural barriers risk paying a price they cannot afford, in both dollars and lives.

About the Author: Joseph E. Halcarz Sr. is the president of BEST Institute Inc., a work force training and development firm based in Garland, Texas, which was selected as a " National Best Practice" by OSHA in 2002. He can be reached at (972) 926-9390.

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