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Destroying Language Barriers to Safety in the Workplace

Safety Tips

America is the melting pot. We have citizens who have come from every corner of the world, creating an amazingly diverse society. Diversity is a good thing, and it even has benefits in the workplace. A recent study of 366 companies across several countries, including the United States, found that companies representing the top 25% of racial and ethnic diversity have a 35% likelihood of better financial returns over competitors in their industry. That’s great news.

But diversity also comes with challenges. In the U.S., many workers speak English as a second language, possibly not that well, and some barely speak it at all. That creates a language barrier that can affect their training and their safety. In fact, according to a SHRM report, OSHA has stated that language barriers are a factor in up to 25% of workplace accidents. 

That number is too high. The investment it takes to shatter those language barriers is far less than the potential cost. Here’s how you can destroy language barriers that stand between you and a safe workplace.

The Facts on the Foreign-Born Workforce

You might be surprised by the actual numbers of foreign-born workers in today’s workforce. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 17.4% of the U.S. workforce was foreign-born in 2019. That means approximately one in every six workers was born outside of the United States and very likely grew up speaking a language other than English as their primary language. 

Believe it or not, 21.9% of U.S. residents speak a foreign language at home. That means they still lean heavily on their native tongue, so even if they do speak English, it may be at a less-than-fluent level. These numbers are only expected to increase. 

How to Eliminate Language Barriers in the Workplace

When it comes to safety training, understanding is everything. Imagine attending a training session where your personal safety is at stake, and you can only make out a portion of what the trainer is saying. That puts you at risk every day from that point on as you go about your job without all of the pertinent safety information. No one wants that situation. Thankfully, there are some simple ways you can reduce, if not eliminate, language barriers when it comes to workplace safety.

1. Find or Hire an Interpreter 

If you have bi-lingual employees on your staff, they may have varying degrees of English fluency. Utilize one of the most fluent of them to act as an interpreter during your training sessions or, better yet, bring them onto your safety team and train them to become a safety instructor. Someone who can conduct safety training in your workers’ native tongue is an asset for everyone involved. 

If you don’t have an employee who fits the bill for that role, consider hiring an interpreter for training sessions. You don’t necessarily need to hire one to be on staff full-time. Still, the expense you’ll incur by hiring one occasionally for training sessions is an investment in your employees and your company.

2. Use Hands-On Training

Everyone can benefit from hands-on training as opposed to simply listening to a trainer give instructions. It helps to solidify teachings and makes them real as employees walk through the motions. For those who may have difficulty understanding some of the words being said, the hands-on aspect of the training may fill in the gaps and help them understand the instructions. While it may be a bit more time-consuming, utilizing hands-on training is well worth the time investment. 

3. Use Bilingual Safety Signs

Your safety signs are a crucial part of your safety program, but they do little good if your employees can’t read them. By posting bilingual or multi-lingual safety signs and labels, you can ensure that their essential safety warnings and messages get through to everyone who sees them. 

It’s easy to find most languages available for safety signs, but if you can’t find what you need, consider creating custom signs to say exactly what you want to say. You can even create custom signs to add your own wording and branding to make them even more effective. 

4. Bilingual Training Materials

Make sure that any visual aids, handouts, or reference materials you use for safety training are also bilingual. Handouts help reinforce your message and provide handy go-to information for your employees if they have questions down the road. Consider adding visual materials and bilingual language to aid them in understanding the safety messages.

5. Support English Learning

If you have a significant number of employees who are not native English speakers, consider providing English classes or a stipend to attend English as a Second Language class. It could be more than a benefit for your safety program. Providing aid for English learning could help you attract new employees and maintain those that you have. It’s a benefit that could very well set you apart from the competition.

Strive for Understanding

Your safety program is only as good as your ability to communicate your safety messages to your employees. It’s all about understanding. They don’t just need to hear or see your safety training and signs; they need to understand them. 

The growth of diversity is a good thing. It can help any business gain insight into other cultures and even open up new markets. But, to fully embrace that diversity, you need to make sure your employees are not put in harm’s way simply because there is a language barrier that is blocking your safety communication. Take the necessary steps to destroy those language barriers, and you’ll create a safer, happier work environment for all. is among the nation’s leading suppliers of OSHA, NFPA and other safety and compliance signs and labels. The online store allows customers to easily search and shop more than 100,000 products. All signs and labels are manufactured in Florida and sold online. ComplianceSigns was designated as one of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S. by “Inc. Magazine.” ComplianceSigns clients span a wide range of industries, including military and government agencies, industrial and chemical manufacturers, retailers, schools, physician offices and health care facilities, professional buildings, churches and more.