The Impact of Language and Culture on Job Safety
Tags: workplace safety

Following safety and health rules is a challenge for any worker. There’s a lot to learn and remember about federal standards, company policies and task-specific protocols. Imagine how much harder all this must be for those who know little or no English in a workplace where almost no one speaks their language. It’s also tough for those who must train and manage these workers, and for those responsible for their safety and health.

What are the safety-related challenges that arise from language and culture differences? Why has the issue taken on greater importance than in the past? And, what are some organizations and employers doing to identify and solve the problems? Those are among questions asked and answered in this compliance report.

Soup…Salad …Whatever!

The familiar metaphor of America as a “melting pot” of culture and ethnicity is giving way among some sociologists to the concept of a “salad.” The difference is that, in a soup, the flavors of the various ingredients blend together, whereas the components of a salad remain intact, each recognizable and distinct yet contributing to a valuable whole. Whichever image you prefer, the point is simple and extends to the American workplace: The United States is blessed with a great diversity of people who seek to live and work here. Their differences make our country and our workplaces interesting and vibrant. But those same differences of language and culture can also contribute to misinformation, misunderstanding and serious injury on the job.


A few years back, then-acting OSHA chief R. Davis Layne addressed the subject of safety and the multi-ethnic workforce. He told the American Bar Association’s Committee on Occupational Safety and Health Law that effective training will be the key to overcoming barriers posed by non-English-speaking workers. Layne highlighted the seriousness of the situation when he told the group about a worker who was struck by the boom of a machine he was operating during the demolition of an office building. The worker left the machine while it was running, after having inadvertently pressed the boom control pedal. Layne explained that the safety instruction book was written in English, but the employee only understood Polish.


Layne noted a 40 percent hike in Hispanic fatalities in the construction industry, and pointed to a high rate of illiteracy among many non-English-speaking workers, which further complicates safety communication and compliance. Problems also arise in the course of OSHA inspections if employees are unable to describe working conditions, or if translators are not available to interpret. OSHA has promised to do more to reach out, especially in Texas, Florida and other states with high Hispanic worker populations. The agency has earmarked part of its Susan Harwood Training Grant budget for what it calls “hard to reach” employees with good results. In Region 9, headquartered in San Francisco, Mandarin Chinese interpreters are routinely brought in to assist in inspections of labor barracks in the Northern Marianas. And construction workers in Guam and Saipan are benefiting from tailgate training sessions conducted in Tagalog.


Meet Joseph McFadden

Joseph McFadden, the president of McFadden & Associates in Lakewood, Colo., is a specialist in the effects of language and culture on occupational safety and health. His degrees are in medical technology, chemistry, toxicology, and industrial hygiene and safety. It was while working as the director of safety and health for a large hospital in Denver that he first began to understand the significant risks that face those who do not speak English as their primary language. Today, nearly half of his consulting business is with construction clients, and the rest is divided among a number of general industries, including health care. The religiously affiliated hospital at which he worked was committed to hiring immigrants. According to McFadden, the facility was a regular tower of Babel, with Russian, German, Vietnamese, Thai, Spanish and other languages common.


One of the primary problems that faced the hospital and its safety director was assuring these workers that if they made a mistake, they would not be deported as a result.


“They would tend to hide injuries and make themselves sicker, and we didn’t want this to happen,” recalls McFadden.


Most of the foreign workers were not highly educated and found work in less desirable areas of the hospital including housekeeping, the laundry, foodservice and material handling. There, they encountered considerable risks, including exposure to chemicals and ergonomic hazards.


Consider Root Causes

A serious training deficiency was illustrated by the case of a Thai worker employed at the hospital. Using pantomime and color-coding strategies, the man had been trained to operate a deep-extraction carpet-cleaning machine, including filling the equipment with the required cleaner. A most important lesson was to use warm water, rather than hot or cold. The worker, assigned to the “graveyard” shift, appeared to be trained. He was on duty soon after a major snowstorm hit the area, which took a big toll on the hospital’s many carpeted areas. The Thai employee was eager to do a good job in view of the super-dirty carpets and, on his own, decided to use hot water, which he believed would have greater impact. As well, he added three “squirts” of the chemical cleaner, rather than one, as required.


“What we hadn’t taken the time to teach him was that the hotter the water, and the more chemical, the more fumes are produced. Suddenly, we had fumes overpowering staff and patients, and causing an entire wing to be evacuated,” says McFadden.


McFadden took the position, contrary to that of some managers, that the employee did not deserve to be fired for his error. Rather, McFadden began to look more deeply into what had happened and why. Apart from insufficient training, he discovered other root causes. Because of the late hour, few supervisors were on duty at the time of the incident. In order to ask a question, the worker would have had to page or phone the supervisor on duty in a separate part of the hospital. But McFadden believed the worker had not been trained to use the phone and pager system. Even had he been able to call, there was little certainty that he could have made his point verbally.


Upon further investigation, McFadden learned that in Thai and other Asian cultures, a worker does not bother a boss except for extremely serious reasons (which this worker did not perceive). Employees are shown how to do their tasks, and are expected to perform them with few questions asked.


Awareness and Action

Over the years, McFadden has developed strategies that help employers understand the problems they face and take proactive steps to avoid the kinds of problems experienced by the Denver hospital. One of the first steps is to encourage employers to get a good understanding of their workforce – what cultures and countries they represent. He asks them about any action they’ve already taken, such as sending workers to English as a Second Language courses offered within the community, often free. McFadden also works with employers on attitude issues. He reminds them that, “nowhere in the regulations does it say that if your folks cannot understand the language, it’s still OK for them to be exposed to workplace hazards.”


Many employers ask him if they can have an untrained non-English-speaking person do something simple, such as sweep the facility. But what happens when the sweeping task takes the worker near hazardous materials that could spill, or takes him under stacked items that may fall? Every task, no matter how simple or by whom it’s performed, should have a job hazard analysis, according to McFadden. He also speaks with employers about the importance of having labels and material safety data sheets in a language that employees can understand. And, he reminds them that the fact that an employee appears to be able to speak English does not mean he or she can read and write it. That also holds true for the workers’ own language – many who seek and find work in the U.S. are not literate even in their native tongues. When employers balk at the potential price tag of a program that might include bilingual training, translators and other strategies, McFadden reminds them of the costs of accidents and OSHA fines. And, he makes them aware of grant opportunities to help businesses, especially smaller ones, fund training for these at-risk employees. Some universities have graduate or doctoral students who will put together a program at no cost to the employer as part of the required research for their degrees.


McFadden explains that a factor that can make training especially costly is that it must be repeated frequently to accommodate the high turnover frequent at lower levels of employment where non-English-speaking workers are often found.


Sharing the Knowledge

Among other successful ideas and techniques he passes on to his clients, McFadden:

-          Pairs a new, non-English-speaking worker with a seasoned employee. This helps the newcomer learn safety rules and language and promotes cultural understanding between the workers.

-          Suggests that employers select some non-American holidays celebrated by employees and organize workplace observances. This gives employees from other countries the feeling that their culture is respected and better understood by others.

-          Reminds employers that when employees are faced with differences, they sometimes resort to horseplay and practical jokes, gestures that can lead to serious injury. Human resources and safety professionals should work together to root out such behavior.

-          Conducts safety training in both English and the language of the native speakers, using translators. McFadden also makes liberal use of visual aids to demonstrate hazards. For example, to illustrate the importance of goggles, he uses a “head” form he purchased from a beauty supply shop. He places safety goggles on the head and splashes pretend acid (colored water) on it. When the goggles are removed, the students can see how well they protect.


Avoiding Culture Clash

Translating safety manuals and procedures into another language is essential, but it doesn’t get at the problem of cultural differences that so strongly influence how employees hear information and what they do with it. It’s an extremely important consideration in job safety, says Dr. Jivan Saran, professor of safety and science technology at Central Missouri State University. Saran was born in India and moved to the U.S. in 1963. He taught at New York University before coming to Missouri, where, for about the past 15 years, he has specialized in cultural issues that affect safety and health and other fields.


“Most people believe that safety is safety, whether you’re in India or Peru. But they forget that different people react to hazards differently,” he says.


Saran says that whereas many employers understand that linguistic differences can affect safety, they’re far less aware of the impact of cultural differences. For example, some ethnic groups are more likely to respect older than younger people, a factor that should be understood when selecting a safety trainer. Saran believes that Americans are less concerned with age, and more concerned that the person in front of them demonstrates authority. He also observes that societies differ considerably in gender-related areas. Some cultures are strongly matriarchal or patriarchal, differences that should be considered when training and managing employees. Among some peoples, machismo is a strong factor and can influence whether a worker will wear protective equipment or take unwise risks.


Watch Your Tongue!

Both Saran and McFadden encourage employers to select their translators carefully. They must be highly aware of nuances and shades of meaning. The English word “safety,” for example, loosely translates into Spanish as “seguridad,” which also means security.


“In this country,” says Saran, “when we refer to ‘safety,’ we could be talking about the safety of our bank accounts, or the importance of ‘being safe by choosing the right deodorant.’”


Last year, Saran was on a business trip in Brazil and, as he knew no Portuguese, was communicating adequately with his host in his limited Spanish. Recalls Saran: “I took my host to a restaurant and after the meal asked him what would be an appropriate tip.” Saran used the word “propina,” which in Mexican Spanish means tip, but in Portuguese the same word means “bribe.” Saran says the embarrassing exchange engendered some questioning looks from diners at nearby tables!


Construction Industry Builds Bridges

Probably the most impressive progress in overcoming language and cultural barriers has been made toward Hispanic workers in the construction industry – and for good reason. One government estimate suggests that the Hispanic workforce in the U.S. is projected to reach more than 19 million by the year 2008. After a 23-year-old Mexican national was buried in a 20-foot-deep-trench at a job site in Scottsdale, Ariz., last year, the employer, Agate Construction Co., was fined $355,250 for OSHA violations, including failure to train workers. Also, some contractors started making changes in their approach to Spanish-speaking workers. One of those that jumped into action was MKB, an Arizona contractor that estimates about 30 percent of its workers do not speak English. Forepersons and managers now attend 12-week Spanish courses.


Safety director John Dusch told The Arizona Republic: “We realized we had a problem. The fact that we were not able to communicate with our employees was affecting our productivity and, most importantly, our safety records.”


In addition to the classes for managers, MKB is planning an English class for its Spanish-speaking workers.


Added Dusch: “It’s a whole different culture out there, in Mexico. There is no OSHA there. People who come here don’t know we have regulations; they don’t realize there are things they cannot do.”


In Seattle, the W.G. Clark construction company offers incentives for workers to learn English. The firm hires a translator to interpret weekly safety meetings and does not pass the cost onto clients. The company has found that industrial hygiene hazards are tougher to communicate to non-English speakers than safety risks such as fire or fall hazards. Exposure to chemicals such as lead in paint is not visible and, thus, harder to convey.


Florida Power & Light (FPL) is providing voluntary English classes for Hispanic construction employees at its Sanford power plant. Says Oscar Paredes, project safety manager for Black & Veatch, which operates the site for FPL: “Government studies show that Florida has one of the highest injury and fatality rates in the construction area. Many of these events are attributed to language barriers.”


Certified instructors from Seminole Community College come to the job site to teach an English class twice a week. The program is divided into four proficiency levels and has proven quite successful, according to FPL officials.


Speak the Language of Safety

Those interviewed for this article and other experts reiterate that employers must do all they can to respect differences among employees and encourage English-speaking workers to do the same. When that happens, the result is a more positive, more productive workplace where people feel good about one another and take safety – their own and that of their fellow workers – more seriously.


About the Author:

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