Written by: Sierra Morris
Among an employer’s most important responsibilities is compliance with OSHA’s General Duty Clause, which states that employers must provide a safe and healthful workplace for their employees. This is far more difficult than it sounds, especially given potential language barriers for those workplaces with Spanish-speaking employees. It is essential that messages about safe work practices, policies, and procedures are communicated to and understood by every single employee. How can we establish a safe and healthful workplace if those important details aren’t effectively communicated?
With the continued diversification of America’s workforce, it is more important than ever that we tailor our messages to those who need to hear and understand them. OSHA has specifically addressed this as well, stating that “an employer must instruct its employees using both a language and vocabulary that the employees can understand” (OSHA). So, what are employers responsible for exactly?
The Prevalence of Spanish Speakers in U.S. Workplaces
Hispanic and Latino workers have been and continue to be a significant chunk of our workforce. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Hispanic and Latino workers will comprise 20% of the labor force by the year 2024. But of course, this doesn’t mean that a full fifth of the average workforce will need training materials in Spanish rather than English.
Of the 57.5 million Hispanics in the United States (as of July 2016), 40 million speak Spanish at home; of those 40 million, more than half claim they speak English “very well” (Census Bureau). However, roughly 10 million Hispanics and Latinos claimed they speak English “not well” or “not at all” (Census Bureau). While these numbers may not sound significant when distributed across the United States and its many workplaces, even one Hispanic or Latino employee who speaks English “not well” or “not at all” necessitates proper and sufficient Spanish training. In addition to this, some research groups outside the Department of Commerce believe there may be a discrepancy in self-reported fluency levels and actual fluency levels.
The Center for Immigration Studies warns that there may be a gap between immigrant self-assessment and reality; according to the CIS, “41 percent of immigrants score at or below the lowest level of English literacy — a level variously described as ‘below basic’ or ‘functional illiteracy’” (Richwine). Even long-time U.S. residents struggle with fluency in English; those who arrived in the United States more than a decade and a half ago score at the 20th percentile while 43% are ‘below basic’ (Richwine). Even with these confusing and seemingly contradictory statistics, one thing is clear: multilingual training in today’s diverse workplace will almost certainly be necessary at some point.
It will ultimately be up to the individual employer to determine where communication barriers exist, and for whom multilingual training materials will be necessary. Keep in mind that some individuals are reluctant to admit they do not speak or read English, for fear of being reprimanded or fired. It’s dangerous and potentially offensive to assume an employee’s language preference either way, but in the case of safety training and protecting employees, it’s best to offer training in all languages relevant to your workforce.
Quality Spanish Safety Training Matters
Just like with English training, Spanish training must be relevant and comprehensible. If an employee sits down to engage in a training exercise but can’t make sense of the language, the entire effort has been a waste. This is where things get dangerous.
Some smaller companies choose to address their multilingual workplace by throwing training materials through Google Translate, or by paying poorly qualified “bilingual” employees to translate. It is of absolute importance that a high-quality translator or reliable company provides training materials in other languages.
Effective Options to Train Spanish-speaking Employees
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There are several different options to successfully train Spanish-speaking employees. Two options are online training courses or hiring an instructor who speaks Spanish and has the necessary credentials to instruct the course(s) you need completed.
There are plenty of companies that sell online safety training courses that are offered in Spanish. Our recommended provider of online safety training is Atlantic Training. A quick search of their product library for the term “Spanish” will return 67 pages of results. Almost every single one of their products is offered in both English as well as Spanish making their products a great choice. Atlantic also guarantees OSHA compliance for all of their training DVDs.
Another option is to hire a Spanish-speaking instructor to come to your workplace. There are many companies that offer in-person safety training services in Spanish. A quick search on Google will often return several options for your area. You could also ask for recommendations from other employers who utilize third party safety training companies in your area. Just remember to research potential training companies and ensure they have instructors with the proper credentials to train your employees.
Why is it Important to Provide These Options to Spanish-speaking Employees?
As the data has made clear, it is difficult to know for certain our workforce’s competencies in the English language. This is only important because those competencies determine how our messages concerning health and safety policies should be delivered. It is frankly unethical to fail to accommodate employees who don’t have a proven proficiency in the English language; without these accommodations, those critical life-saving messages can’t be effectively delivered.
Aside from the ethical values, failing to provide audiovisual or multilingual training for affected employees could cost your company millions. In the event of a serious accident or injury warranting an audit by OSHA, OSHA representatives will ask employees, right off the bat, “did you understand your training?” You want that answer to be yes. The options are out there; make sure you take advantage of them and properly equip your employees – no matter their language proficiency – for the dangers that are out there.
Richwine, Jason, PhD. “Immigrant Literacy: Self-Assessment vs. Reality.” CIS.org, June 21, 2017. Accessed November 30, 2017. https://cis.org/Immigrant-Literacy-Self-Assessment-vs-Reality.
U.S. Department of Commerce. Census Bureau. Facts for Features: Hispanic Heritage Month 2017. August 31, 2017. Accessed November 30, 2017. https://www.census.gov/newsroom/facts-for-features/2017/hispanic-heritage.html.
U.S. Department of Labor. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Hispanics will make up nearly 20 percent of the labor force in 2024. September 28, 2016. Accessed November 30, 2017. https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2016/hispanics-will-make-up-nearly-20-percent-of-the-labor-force-in-2024.htm.
U.S. Department of Labor. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Memorandum for Regional Administrators: OSHA Training Standards Policy Statement. By David Michaels, PhD, MPH. April 28, 2010. Accessed November 30, 2017. https://www.osha.gov/dep/standards-policy-statement-memo-04-28-10.html.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sierra Morris resides in Fort Polk, LA
with her husband and two dogs. Still relatively new to the OSH world,
Morris seeks to make sense of occupational safety and health
issues through a lens of behavioral and social psychology.
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