June 26, 2003
Modifying your safety program to address the needs of your Spanish-speaking employees can create a much safer work environment. Here's how one company achieved that goal.
Over the past several years, the U.S. has seen a dramatic increase in its population of Hispanic, Spanish-speaking people, with a corresponding impressive increase in the number of Spanish-speaking citizens who are entering the manufacturing work force. Having employees who speak limited or no English presents new challenges for those trying to maintain corporate safety programs. This article discusses some specific actions Aeroglide Corp. took to modify its safety program to ensure a safe workplace for non-English-speaking employees.
Before beginning work, each employee is required to go through an initial safety orientation. Often we find that new employees have a basic understanding of the English language and that the initial safety orientation can be accomplished by speaking slowly and asking questions to ensure that the employee's comprehension is complete.
However, if there is any question about whether the employee comprehends the safety orientation, training material is supplied in Spanish. Optimally, the person who leads the safety orientation should be bilingual in both English and Spanish so that any questions the new employee has can be answered completely.
After teaching a couple of Occupational Safety and Health Administration- (OSHA-) compliant forklift classes, we realized that much of the technical wording could not be understood by our Hispanic students even when we tried to describe the words with hand gestures. While this prompted many laughs and actually resulted in breaking the ice, early in the class session it became clear that it was important that each student retain complete understanding of the training. We solicited suggestions from our Spanish-speaking employees about how to improve the training course. As a result, we made several key changes.
First, all handouts in PowerPoint® presentations are translated into Spanish. A local translator can do this type of work for you. Our complete, 50-plus-slide PowerPoint presentation is translated for approximately $300. Second, we ask our bilingual employees to help with translating the training. By doing this, our translators usually can tell us if we are moving too fast, or if we should spend more time in certain areas.
To ensure that all employees can evacuate the building safely, it is important to have all of our building evacuation plans translated into Spanish and distributed on the first day of employment. These plans, in both English and Spanish, also are posted in appropriate locations.
After an injury or during a traumatic experience, people who speak only broken English or English as a second language tend to gravitate back to their native tongue during these stressful situations. Because of this, it is extremely important to have a bilingual employee on our Emergency Response Team to be able to comfort and care for those employees who do not speak English. Often minor injuries can become serious if a victim is scared or goes into shock.
In addition to adding a bilingual employee to our Emergency Response Team, we have bilingual employees on our Safety Committee. We have found that our Hispanic employees respond very well when they are directly involved in the Safety Committee. They are able to take minutes from the meeting and discuss activities with other Hispanic workers for feedback. Ideally, Safety Committee minutes should be printed in Spanish as well. Additionally, all safety promotions should be crafted bilingually so that all employees can participate equally.
When training Spanish-speaking employees on the proper use or maintenance of equipment, it is important to use the manufacturer's documentation. Usually most equipment is shipped with documentation in at least two languages other than English. If not, Spanish documentation can be provided if requested. Many warning labels have Spanish wording as well. Any additional training should be made on a case-by-case basis. A bilingual employee can do this, or documentation can be translated easily into Spanish if such documentation is not readily available.
These are a few issues we needed to consider as we began to employ more and more Spanish-speaking workers. It is important that all employees read and understand all information they receive regarding safety. We have a common goal – to provide a safe workplace for all employees so that at the end of the day they can return home to their families safely.