Adequate communication is essential to guarantee health and safety at work: this poses an additional challenge when you have a multilingual workforce

by Pisana Ferrari – Branding and Social Media Manager

Foreign-born workers may face language barriers that compromise their ability to understand training materials, signage, safety and hazard alerts as well as verbal instructions, and can potentially increase their risk of on-the-job injury. Languages also have different dialects, and workforces can include people with different literacy levels and multiple cultural perspectives. Adequate communication, both verbal and written, is essential in order to ensure that information is understood by all, irrespective of nationality and culture, in the same way. In the US alone foreign-born workers made up 17% of the workforce according to 2020 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. An excellent recent article in Health+Safety highlights the complexity of providing linguistically and culturally-suited information in the workplace.

Taking cultural background into account

When it comes to translation or interpretation, it helps for the interpreter or translator to be familiar with the audience’s cultural background, says Juan Zuniga, a worker/trainer for a worker/trainer in the United Steelworkers (USW)’s environmental, health and safety department. Zuniga is fluent in English and Spanish. In many instances, he adds, a translation to another language, when done word for word, might not convey the message intended, and you need to find a way so that the audience can understand what you’re talking about. Zuniga’s job duties include helping translate into Spanish USW hazard alerts.

A holistic approach to language issues

Cory Worden, health and safety advisor at the Houston Department, says he views the issue holistically. “If we look at the language factor in terms of the entire safety management system – from the representation on the committee, the hazard analysis, the hazard controls, the communication, the leading indicators and lagging indicators to the analysis – then, ideally, we can not only catch any potential shortfalls as early as possible, but we can also use the different language and, subsequently, the cultural perspective to our advantage. We can benefit the team by having those different perspectives, those different viewpoints and those cultural factors.”

Ensuring worker comprehension of training

Completing a training course does not necessarily imply that a worker has understood it. One way to check this is to have the worker demonstrate a skill, e.g. putting on a safety harness, setting up a fall barrier or putting on a respirator, says Thomas Cunningham, a behavioral scientist at the US National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health, NIOSH. If a worker is not able to perform the task, with the safety protocols included, then one needs to figure out if it due to a language barrier or not. “You want to have a trainer or a facilitator who knows the audience they’re speaking to,” Zuniga says.

cApStAn’s experience in translation and linguistic quality assurance of health and safety surveys and tests

cApStAn is the world’s most experienced agency in maximising cross-linguistic and cross-cultural comparability in data collection instruments. Since 2000, we have shaped, tested, streamlined and disseminated good practices of survey and test localization. We run the gamut of language services, from consultancy in diversity, equity, inclusion and bias reduction (DEI-BR) to intelligent localisation and translation memory management.

In the health and safety space, we help organizations develop content that is fair, valid and reliable across regions, cultures and languages.

Projects we’ve worked on:

EU-OSHA’s Second European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks

Workers’ exposure survey on cancer risk factors in Europe

Some of our clients who develop surveys and tests related to health and safety:





‘We can benefit the team. Take cultures into account when you have a multilingual workforce”, Kevin Druley, Safety+Health, an nsc publication, March 27, 2022 https://www.safetyandhealthmagazine.com/articles/22358-benefit-team-multilingual-workforce-safety?page=2#looy-jump

Photo credit  Eric Wang @ Unsplash