Safety Through Understanding

“PUSH” and “PULL”  are both four letter English words and begin with the same two letters.  If a worker does not read English,  he or she  has only 50% chance of making the correct choice.  Making the wrong one can cause an error or even a serious injury with the result of costly down time, increased insurance costs, and possibly even litigation.   Most languages, including Spanish, have two completely separate words for PUSH and PULL and they don’t look or sound anywhere near the same.  Lead to confusion for the immigrant worker?  You bet!   Everyone knows that safety training is required, but how many are aware of the consequences of providing essential protection and safety training exclusively in English?

In 2006, fatal work injuries involving Latino workers reached the highest level ever recorded for Latino workers.  According to government sources, the fatality rate for civilian foreign-born Hispanic workers in 2006 was 6.0, or 50 percent higher than the rate of all workers.    David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA at the time  noted  that “far too many Latino workers have needlessly lost their lives just trying to earn a living and it must stop.”  

To be sure, most companies are careful to provide essential safety training for their workers; Personal Protective Equipment, Fork Lift Safety, Hazardous Materials, First Aid/CPR etc.
Typically, OSHA materials are provided in Spanish with class instruction in English or through interpretation.  When instruction is not in a language the workers speak, and there is no way to ask questions to clarify content, there is no way to determine how much essential training is understood. This can lead to accidents and errors on the job! Most, however, provide this training in English.  Is there any way of truly knowing that everyone really understood and can successfully implement the safety training  they ‘’learned?”

On April 29, 2010, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis issued an
enforcement memorandum that
directs Department of Labor compliance officers to check and verify that workers are receiving OSHA-required training in a language they understand to conform with the government goal of reducing injuries and illnesses among Latino and other vulnerable workers. Unfortunately, like many directives, the means for enforcing the directives are often not adequately in place.  To save dollars, many employers continue to offer English-only training in the hope that there will be no accidents resulting from misunderstanding.  When bilingual training is available, one must measure the additional cost of providing it against the estimated costs of a violation or accident.  Many workers can “get along” in English but are unable to grasp  sophisticated or technical instruction in their second language.  Companies can minimize their risk by assuring that their Spanish speaking workers completely understand essential OSHA and other safety concepts and techniques by providing training in Spanish.