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The Impact of Language Barriers on Workplace Safety 03/16/20 / Maggie Barr

Updated: Jul 12, 2021

The United States, the third most populated country in the world, continues to be a melting pot of races and ethnicities. It's predicted that growth in the Hispanic and Asian populations will triple by the year 2060. While English is the most commonly spoken language in the U.S. at almost 80%, Spanish is the primary language of almost 15% of residents. Studies show that companies with more diversity already enjoy financial returns that are 35% higher than national industry medians. As the population continues to evolve in the coming years, language barriers in these diverse organizations can have a major impact on both workplace safety and the health outcomes of injured workers.

Language Barriers to Communication with Injured Workers

The workers' compensation claim process can be intimidating for individuals filing a claim for the first time, let alone for an employee who does not speak the language of their employer, insurance carrier or the medical professional. Mistakes can easily be made by both the employer and the employee when they neglect to follow certain procedures, and language barriers often create additional issues, including:

  • Confusing or conflicting instructions and information given to employees

  • Lack of options for contesting healthcare decisions

  • Complex, difficult to understand terminology

  • Time constraints for submitting the proper paperwork for a claim

  • Insufficient or total absence of in-person communication with injured workers

These language barriers can also result in delays and errors in the claims process that negatively affect the injured worker's recovery and return to work. They may not understand their rights and face issues with the compensation process, including how to report an on the job injury and communicating how that injury occurred, which could lead to delays in payment or claim denials. They also may have a lack of knowledge regarding the healthcare system and not understand their diagnosis, the treatments outlined for them or how to pursue authorized medical treatments, which can lead to poor health outcomes. Effective communication is often key to their successful recovery.

Improving Workplace Safety and Health Outcomes by Eliminating Language Barriers

OSHA requires employers to provide safety training in a manner all employees can understand. If an employee requires job instructions in a language other than English, they should receive the proper training and other pertinent, job-related information in their native language. In other words, the employer must provide training and instructions using both a language and vocabulary the employee can understand. When a non-English speaking worker doesn't understand the safety training materials or cannot effectively communicate with coworkers, the organization can face not only lower productivity rates but also higher incident rates that can lead to all types of injuries, including death. This is especially true in industries like agriculture, manufacturing and construction that require employees to utilize heavy machinery regularly. OSHA states that language barriers are a factor in 25% of on-the-job accidents. As the workplace continues to diversify, it's crucial to take measures that will both improve employee safety, and their health outcomes should an injury occur. A few options include: Adjust the safety training program Help ensure the safety training is as effective as possible for all workers by tweaking the program for non-English speaking employees. This may mean speaking slowly and clearly, or conducting training in the worker's primary language, demonstrating while speaking, using visual aids and encouraging participation. During the training, employees can also be asked to practice the skills they've learned. Allow time for questions and request feedback to ensure all employees comprehend the training. If your insurance carrier offers training materials, such as safety videos, ask if they have versions in other languages. Implement a buddy system New employees can be put at ease by being partnered with a seasoned employee who understands the job requirements. This is true for employees who speak English as a second language, too. The longtime employee can help better relay messages and demonstrate procedures to the new employee in a real-life setting. Translate policies, procedures, handouts and signage Employers should consider translating their training materials into multiple languages so non-English speaking employees can easily decipher job-related safety practices. Providing written documents and signage for employees is often a great supplement to the training program. Hire an interpreter for bilingual employees Consider hiring an interpreter or utilize a reputable translation service for larger groups of non-English speaking employees. In claims situations, the insurance carrier may provide a translator, or they also could be mandated to provide a translator based on the laws in their state. These services can aid in the safety training program to help reduce injuries, as well as assist injured workers following a job-related accident. Interpreters will help injured workers understand the claim process as well as the medical treatments prescribed, ensuring the employees can get back to work sooner. Offer English classes If possible, employers should also consider offering English classes for their non-English speaking employees. These classes allow workers to understand the organization's safety procedures, how to use tools and machinery, and can also improve communication between workers. As communication on the job improves, the risk of injuries decreases. Offering English classes is an investment that cannot only develop employees into better, safer workers, but can also allow them to thrive in their communities. Additionally, non-English speaking workers will feel as though their employer is working to accommodate their needs, which can lead to an overall feeling of loyalty to the company and a reduction in turnover rates.

By Maggie Barr

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