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October 04, 2004
Habla Safety? Training a Multilingual Audience

Trainers need to find ways to hurdle language barriers. While English is a second language for an increasing percentage of the workforce, companies are still obligated to make sure employees understand safety training. It's not enough to make a presentation if you know that members of your audience may not be able to understand or use the information effectively. OSHA is keenly aware of this, noting, for example, that workplace fatalities among Hispanics in the construction industry have increased at the same time that the total number of fatalities has declined.

Look for resources that might be available to help. With the growing awareness of the need for multilingual communication and training, there are more and more programs and other resources that address this issue.

  • Check with OSHA--There may be OSHA-funded programs or other forms of assistance in your area that focus on English-as-a-second-language ("ESL"). Search the OSHA website for "bilingual training," or call your regional OSHA office.
  • Identify ESL programs in your local area--these are commonly available through community colleges and adult education programs. Then find ways to encourage ESL employees to take the courses they need to improve their English.
  • Find bilingual co-workers who can help make sure your safety message is getting through--and let you know if it's not.

Tips for better communication with multilingual audiences:

Why It Matters...
  • The number of foreign-born people in the United States has jumped more than 50 percent since 1990--from 20 million to more than 30 million.
  • The percentage of immigrants in the workforce is estimated at 14 percent--that's 1 in 7--and higher in some regions of the United States, such as the West and Southwest.
  • Nearly half of immigrants in the United States are considered to have limited proficiency in English.
  • Acknowledge that the language barrier exists. Many people who are not fluent in English are reluctant to admit it, leading them to pretend as though they understand what you say. Let them know that your goal is to teach safety, not English, and that it's OK for them to keep asking questions until they really understand your message.
  • Speak slowly and clearly--this makes it much easier for people who know basic English but are not truly fluent. Try to avoid using jargon or jokes, which can be incomprehensible or confusing.
  • Learn some key words and phrases in other languages. You don't have to become bilingual yourself, but you can help break down barriers by showing your own willingness to make an effort to improve communications.
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