Safety for Spanish-speaking workers must address cultural as well as language barriers

October 22nd, 2007 by Julie Ferguson

Hispanic workers suffer fatalities and serious injuries at significantly higher rates than other workers and this is due in large part to language barriers. Previously, we’ve discussed the importance of keeping the multicultural workforce safe by ensuring that your safety programs address language barriers. We’ve also discussed how qualified interpreters can save lives.
Recently, some of our readers who run a Spanish translation firm shared an article they authored, which discusses cultural misunderstandings that can jeopardize safety. We thought it was valuable enough to pass along to our blog readers and we secured their permission to feature it here:
Safety for Spanish Speakers: Beyond the Language Barrier
by Ferney Colorado and Melissa Burkhart, Futuro Sólido USA
When providing safety training for Spanish speakers, the most obvious challenge that employers face is the language barrier. However, translation is the easy part. Bridging the cultural barrier – addressing what Spanish speakers actually believe about safety in this country – is much more difficult. And, because these workers will rarely voice their misconceptions, they are rarely addressed. The result is that employers and workers compensation providers can often go to a great deal of trouble to provide quality safety training in Spanish, only to have their workers go back to the job site and do exactly what they had been doing previously.
This can be a source of great frustration, not to mention loss. The reason for it is that many Spanish speakers enter a training session holding very firm beliefs that are contrary to what they are about to be taught. Rather than instructing people who are simply uninformed on the subject, trainers have to “convert” people who believe very staunchly that they are much more valuable as workers or employees when they do not comply with federal regulations.

Many Spanish speakers are convinced that safety training does not apply to them. Employers and workers compensation providers frequently forget (or perhaps were never aware) that most of their Spanish-speaking employees have probably risked their lives at least once, and are, for various reasons, accustomed to living with a level of danger and risk that Americans would find intolerable. Spanish speakers also tend to consider those Americans who emphasize safety precautions a bit wimpy and unmanly – and perhaps eager to find excuses to put off actual work. Furthermore, they have difficulty grasping the concept that the U.S. government enforces laws to protect the safety of even the most menial of workers. Finally, they have no idea that a lost-time injury or accident can cost an employer tens of thousands of dollars – or more.
For training to have the desired results, Spanish speakers must understand why they are there in the first place before the actual instructions are presented. Common pitfalls to providing effective safety training in Spanish include the following:

  • Poor translation (either done by a computer program or an unqualified translator). This sends the message that the content cannot be very important, since no one made the effort to convey it clearly and correctly.
  • Asking a bilingual employee to present or interpret. This is risky of a number of reasons:
    a. This person may hold the same erroneous beliefs as his audience
    b. He may not be seen as an authority or expert.
    c. He may be embarrassed to speak publicly on a subject where is not an expert.
    d. An employer or trainer has no control whatsoever over what he is saying in Spanish.

  • A presenter who may be an expert in safety but is not familiar with the culture and belief system of the participants, or with the safety practices (or lack thereof) in their countries of origin. An effective Spanish-speaking trainer knows that he will be attempting to alter beliefs that have been entrenched in this population for generations, and that he will be directly contradicting Spanish-speaking immigrants’ most valued and trusted source of information—-that is, other Spanish speaking immigrants. He will also have proven strategies to build trust and rapport with the participants, which will inspire to them to change their behavior and comply with the training.

Pro-active employers are hiring interpreters and trainers who are not only experts in their field but who are also culturally aware. Another option is to purchase an educational introduction to safety training that addresses the misconceptions explained here, and which, when shown before the actual training, greatly improves the results.
Of course investing this kind of effort for every simple toolbox talk does not make sense even for large employers. However, if a Spanish OSHA 10-hour, or an initial orientation to launch a new season or a substantial project begins with the points outlined below, it will be far more effective. When these points are reinforced, builders will see substantial long-term savings, as losses are reduced, workers compensation premiums and claims are minimized, and worker loyalty and buy-in to job-site safety culture solidifies.
What many Spanish-speaking employees think

  • You may be required to risk your life or health
  • No effective government inspections of work sites
  • The law does not apply to immigrant workers, for whom the government has no concern
  • Regulations are designed for American workers, who are not as tough as Hispanic worker
  • A lost-time injury or accident costs an employer nothing; if one worker is injured, there are plenty of others waiting to take his place
  • Training a new hire or setting a positive example for him will jeopardize your job security; he’ll do the same job for less money and you’ll be fired
  • A builder can buy a government inspector a nice meal or gift and no fines will be imposed for infractions
  • Most employers do not truly value a worker’s health and safety; workers are dispensable and replaceable

What Spanish-speaking workers need to learn about safety in the U.S.

  • Nobody wants you to risk your life or health
  • The U.S. government actively inspects work sites
  • The law applies to all workers, regardless of race, national origin, etc.
  • Regulations are designed to protect all workers engaged in occupations where physical risk is involved
  • The cost of a lost-time injury or accident can easily be more than a worker’s annual wages and can be severely debilitating, especially to smaller companies
  • The ability and willingness to train new hires makes you a much more valuable worker and improves your job security
  • Here, heavy fines are often imposed on employers for non-compliance with the law.
  • Most employers do value worker health and safety. Workers are valued both as human beings and as resources for the company

Ferney Colorado, who has worked in construction both in South America and in the United States, and Melissa Burkhart are the co-founders of Futuro Sólido USA, which provides Spanish language translation, interpreting, and training. They have recently produced a DVD in Spanish with English sub-titles, called The Importance of Safety Training, which addresses misconceptions about safety and greatly improves compliance among Spanish speakers.