Safety Communication with Workers Who Speak Limited English

  Lacey Peil-Kelly |   Training & Awareness

safety training for workers with limited English skills

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Over the years, we have hired quite a number of employees who did not grow up speaking, reading, or writing English as their native language. We need to understand what our responsibilities are to these employees regarding training and communicating safety rules and procedures.


You are certainly not alone. More and more organizations have found themselves with employees whose ability to speak and understand English is limited.   If you fall under OSHA regulations, the onus of this issue is crystal clear— it is the employer’s responsibility to provide training to all employees in a language that they understand.  That goes not only for more formal classroom training, but also for any type of safety communications such as signs and written procedures. Here’s an excerpt from a 2007 Memorandum issued by OSHA:

“An employer must instruct its employees using both a language and vocabulary that the employees can understand…Similarly, if the employee’s vocabulary is limited, the training must account for that limitation. By the same token, if employees are not literate, telling them to read training materials will not satisfy the employer’s training obligation.”

Undoubtedly there are some jobs that require a person who is proficient in English—truck drivers who operate on public highways for instance. Along the same lines for any other job, most private sector employers have the right to hire the person they deem is most qualified and the qualifications they establish can include English proficiency. But when an employer chooses to hire a non-Native English speaker, they take on the added responsibility of assuring that the employee understands what is required to perform the job satisfactorily…and safely.

One last note about hiring someone to interpret for a training class; make sure you carefully check out their credentials. (By the way, interpreters deal with spoken language and translate orally, while translators deal with written text.) Make sure they are able to translate readily in both directions, and on the spot or you will waste valuable training time waiting for them to catch the participants up to speed. It is also not a good idea to rely completely on a web-based translation platform. Although Google Translate and other free platforms provide a quick way to get the gist of a phrase, they are not very good at translating nuances and more complicated phrases.

Answered by Certified Safety Professional and Certified Hazardous Materials Manager Pam Walaski, president of JC Safety and Environmental Inc. of Pittsburgh, PA.

Related content:

This article warns supervisors against using technical jargon to communicate safety.

How would you rate your communication skills? This article can help you.

If you are in Canada: This article examines some of the dangers caused by language barriers in the workplace.

If you are in the United States: This article looks at 10 reasons why your trainees might not be listening to you.

OSHA Training Standards Policy Statement issued April 17, 2007 by Edwin J Foulke, Jr. (

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