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Does safety training have to be multilingual?

Does safety training have to be multilingual?

Yosie Saint-Cyr LLB, Managing Editor, HRinfodesk published by First Reference Inc., January 2014

Does safety training have to be multilingual? According to 138 (45%) out of 304 respondents, yes, safety training should be multilingual. But it was close-124 (41%) respondents did not believe that there is such an obligation and 42 (14%) did not know either way.

With today’s diverse and multilingual workforce, it is logical that employers provide safety training in a language that is understandable to their workers. Diversity creates a need to provide safe and fair working environments for the multicultural workforce.

However, is it required under the law?

As employers, you are responsible for ensuring the right safety message and the right safety policies, procedures, practices and expectations are communicated effectively, regardless of the background of your workers. Thus, yes, it is required that employers provide health and safety training and resources in a language other than English if it is needed to ensure non-speaking English workers understand the requirements under the law, their rights and obligations and all directives and instructions to work safely.

However, in some jurisdictions like Ontario, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and Labrador, Northwest Territories, Nunavut and the Yukon, it is an express obligation stated in Occupational Health and Safety law and/or Regulations due to the industry sector or occupation. In others such as Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Quebec, it is not expressly stated in law but is implied as being a requirement in various safety or ministry of labour occupational health and safety guidelines.

In addition, most ministries of labour occupational health and safety division or workers' compensation boards offer multilingual health and safety resources and training materials because they realize how important it is for employers to address the needs of employees from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

Notwithstanding the above, we are not saying that you should produce your health and safety program (which include policies, practices, procedures, training, education, safety instructions etc.) in every language spoken. You need to assess the risk of accidents, injuries and illnesses that a language barrier will have on your workplace if a number of workers don't understand your safety program and accompanying materials because it is not offered in a language they understand.

In jurisdiction where the language requirement is in the law, it will sometime state that the employer must post the explanatory material both in English and in the majority language of a workplace if it is a language other than English. For example, in Ontario farming operations with migrant workers coming from countries that mostly speak Spanish, the safety material must be found in both English and Spanish.

To communicate safety to workers whose first language is not English, safety experts have provided the following tips and tricks:

  • If you have a safety committee, be sure to include one or more multilingual employees on it who can provide vital feedback on cultural differences and understanding, translation, multilingual resources and how well your multilingual safety efforts are working.
  • Show, don't tell. Use direct hands-on training to show workers what you expect of them. And when you've completed their training, have them perform the skill while you watch, so you can make sure they understand.
  • Provide mentoring. Team up a new worker with an experienced and safety-conscious worker who speaks his or her language for on-the-job training.
  • Recruit trainers. If you have an experienced employee with good English skills who is also fluent in another language spoken by your workers, recruit that worker to provide formal training for his or her coworkers.
  • Teach English. Some companies have found that providing English as a Second Language classes for their workers contributes to improved safety.
  • Use multilingual signs and written materials. Workplace signs that provide necessary information should be printed in all of the languages that are used in the workplace. Written materials should be available to workers in their native languages. Make sure you obtain such multilingual resources from a credible source and that the resources have been properly translated (i.e., various dialect) and meet the needs of the organization. In addition, using the correct literacy level is just as important in other languages as it is in English. It is best to test the translated materials using a focus group made up of a subset of your target population.