Immigrants and Workplace Safety

Multilingual signage promotes worker and customer safety.
i Hemera Technologies/ Images

A culturally diverse workforce can give your business a competitive edge, but requires more attention to safety training to overcome communication barriers and differences in perceptions. Whether they're permanent U.S. residents, naturalized citizens or temporary migrants, immigrants on your payroll -- like all employees -- must be trained about health and safety hazards, accident prevention, reporting procedures and their workplace safety rights in accordance with the Occupational Safety and Health Act. To be effective, your workplace safety program must address specific concerns related to foreign workers: language, cultural differences and education level.

Immigrant Overview

Immigrants represented slightly more than 16 percent of U.S. workforce in 2012 yet accounted for nearly 18 percent of fatal injuries, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Maintenance, service, building and transportation companies employ a higher percentage of foreign-born workers than firms in other industries. Restaurants, landscapers, janitorial and cleaning firms, delivery companies and contractors can control their worker's compensation expenses, guard their productivity and limit their risk exposure through OSHA-compliant safety programs that accommodate immigrants they employ. Agricultural businesses employing seasonal or migrant workers also must adhere to housing and transportation safety provisions in the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, or MSPA.

Multilingual Challenges

According to "Work Safe – An Employer's Guide to Safety and Health in a Diversified Workplace," English is a second language for 19 percent of U.S. households. Your immigrant workers may speak English fluently, but not read and write it well. Training sessions that rely on printed material or web-based instruction lose their effectiveness when presented in an English-only format. Warning labels and signs alerting workers to hazards can be misunderstood, especially by those with only basic English skills. OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, has revised its hazard communication standards to include signs that use pictograms and other elements to increase comprehension of safety awareness.

Education and Cultural Barriers

Turning to translated health and safety instructions can reduce work-related accidents and injuries of your immigrant employees. However, their cultural backgrounds can hinder their understanding and appreciation of the importance of following safe work habits and procedures. Their native land may not consider occupational safety or worker health to be important. Non-native workers without a formal education have limited job options and may be reluctant to jeopardize their paychecks by reporting health and safety issues. As an employer, you want to take steps to make workplace safety integral to each job and encourage your immigrant workers to put safety first.

Tailoring Your Safety Communication

Small businesses can use industry trade groups, such as the National Restaurant Association, and nonprofit organizations such as the Construction Safety Council as sources for bilingual safety training. OSHA also offers materials in several languages, including Spanish, Korean, Polish and Vietnamese, and makes a regional diverse workforce coordinator available to speak to groups of immigrant workers. If you prefer to hire a translator to adapt your existing material or a bilingual trainer to conduct classes, Peter Rousmaniere, an expert in worker's compensation and risk management, suggests choosing someone familiar with gestures and expressions common to the cultures your immigrants represent to avoid misunderstandings. Rousmaniere also advised pairing less fluent workers with those who've demonstrated a mastery of the English language, adapting written material to include pictures and checking comprehension with oral, rather than printed, tests.

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