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Preventing Workplace Accidents With a Multilingual Workforce

two industrial service engineers conduct a safety check of a control panel and boiler room at a power station . They are both wearing safety equipment and are looking at a control panel .

Every worker needs to understand a company's health and safety policies

Many workplace accidents occur due to language barriers involving non-English speaking employees, according to a recent article about the issue in Safety + Health, a magazine focusing on workplace safety-related issues.

“Clear written and verbal communications are essential to health and safety excellence,” said Steve Sallman, director of United Steelworkers’ environmental, health and safety department. “It’s even more important when different languages are involved.”

Companies need to take into account the different languages spoken by all employees. That way, employers can prevent workplace accidents involving non-English speaking employees.

How language barriers contribute to workplace accidents

More than 1 out of 6 people are foreign-born workers, according to data collected in 2020 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Specifically, 17 percent of the U.S. workforce was born in another country and may speak a different language than English.

As such, companies need to take into account what language their employees speak and understand. This is especially important when it comes to training materials, safety warnings, and signs posted in the workplace warning employees about potential workplace hazards.

And even if such material is posted in another language, employers need to realize “that languages also have different dialects, and workforces can include people with multiple cultural perspectives,” according to Juan Zuniga, a worker/trainer in the United Steelworkers’ environmental, health and safety department, who was interviewed by Safety + Health Magazine about this issue.

“One word in my culture may mean one thing, but even to someone who speaks the same language, it may mean something completely different,” Zuniga said.

Workplace language requirements

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires companies to provide training “in a language and vocabulary workers can understand,” according to Safety + Health Magazine. OSHA explained these requirements in a 2010 memorandum regarding training standards and requirements for employers:

For example, if an employee does not speak or comprehend English, instruction must be provided in a language the employee can understand. Similarly, if the employee's vocabulary is limited, the training must account for that limitation. Similarly, if the employee's vocabulary is limited, the training must account for that limitation.

In particular terms, this means that companies need to make sure employees understand training materials and all safety warnings in the workplace.

How to prevent accidents involving non-English speaking workers

Like many workplace accidents, the best way to prevent incidents involving non-English speakers involves careful planning and preparation.

Sometimes, this might involve the company hiring a translator who can communicate with workers during safety training sessions. Other times, companies might hire someone to translate written materials or warning signs posted in the workplace. That way, important safety warnings are clearly communicated to workers in a language they can understand.

Workplace health and safety experts also recommend developing a bilingual workforce. As a result, it’s not simply teaching English to Spanish-speaking workers. It’s teaching Spanish to English-speaking workers, for example.

“We need more safety and health professionals that are bilingual and bicultural,” Vanessa Galvan, a corporate agriculture program safety and health manager for a California-based workers’ compensation carrier, said in an interview with Safety + Health Magazine.

Talk to a workers' comp attorney about your legal rights

Workplace accidents involving non-English speaking workers can be complicated. Injured workers might not even understand their rights or their employer’s legal obligations. This is why it’s critical that injured workers talk to an experienced workers’ compensation lawyer right away.

The New York City workers’ compensation attorneys at Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano LLP can serve as your guide through this complex legal process. We thoroughly understand the state and federal laws governing employers when it comes to language requirements, safety training, and warnings. We can also help you navigate the workers' compensation process in New York and fight for the benefits you're entitled to.

Make sure you fully understand your legal rights. Contact us today to learn how we can help you. We have 12 offices conveniently located throughout New York, including five offices in New York City.

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