Diversity & Inclusion

Overcoming Language, Hearing Obstacles for Safety’s Sake

By Jason Bohanan

Communicating with employees is essential to the health of any business. Daily communication between management, supervisors, and front-line employees helps keep every aspect of the business running, from planning meetings to ensuring everyday assignments are completed. Unfortunately, no method of communication is perfect. Communication breakdowns, such as lost memos and unchecked voicemails, can hamper almost every department within a company.

For employers, communicating detailed safety procedures with large numbers of workers can be difficult. Finding the most effective method of reaching employees and ensuring the lines of communication remain open takes work and innovation. Many firms, however, are encountering two relatively new obstacles to reaching workers: language barriers and hearing impairments. Companies are hiring more employees who either cannot speak English fluently or have hearing impairments than in the past. Unfortunately, many of these businesses have not planned how to provide adequate safety training to workers who have trouble communicating.

It is difficult to track the number of non-English-speaking employees in the American workforce because many are undocumented aliens. Although the number of non-English-speaking workers is unknown, there is little doubt their ranks will continue growing. Assuming that all non-English speakers are illegal aliens and speak Spanish is incorrect, however. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, both legal and undocumented United States residents use Chinese, French, German, Italian, and other tongues as their primary language.

While more data exists for figuring the number of hearing-impaired employees, the statistics still paint an incomplete picture. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that 28 million Americans have some degree of hearing loss, a number it expects to climb as the general population ages. As non-English speakers and hearing-impaired workers continue joining America’s workforce, the ability to communicate with those employees will be at a premium.

Non-English Speakers

A number of communication challenges face companies whose employees do not speak English fluently. Language barriers, illiteracy, cultural differences, fear, and embarrassment are all obstacles that must be confronted to ensure safe working conditions. Although some issues may seem minor, the smallest miscommunication can result in employees who fail to understand safety guidelines or potential hazards.

While the difference in languages is the most obvious challenge, it is also perhaps the easiest to conquer. Employing bilingual workers is typically the most effective tool a company has to bridge language gaps with employees. Bilingual employees are often used in new worker orientation, safety training, and daily activities. Bilingual workers can also become an unofficial liaison between management and those who struggle with English. Along those same lines, consider asking key employees, such as supervisors and managers, to learn key phrases of their workers’ daily language.

If hiring bilingual employees is not feasible, other means of communication will be necessary. Fortunately, several communication methods can be used as substitutes for the spoken word. Using outside translators to put safety messages in employees’ native languages is becoming more common, as is incorporating pictures and signs in other languages to convey safety warnings.

Another, more difficult, obstacle to overcome is illiteracy. While the vast majority of American workers have little trouble reading or writing, employees from other countries may lack a formal education. According to the United States Census Bureau, about 40 percent of Hispanics above age 24 do not have a high school diploma, compared to 14 percent of Americans. To combat this challenge, use simple, hands-on training and require employees to demonstrate their understanding of safety protocol before permitting them to work. Providing follow-up training to deal with new safety issues is also critical. Avoid using pamphlets, memos, and other forms of written instructions if large numbers of workers have difficulty with reading comprehension.

Fear and embarrassment are other problems that can lead to communication breakdowns with non-English speakers. Workers who have trouble speaking or understanding English may hesitate to ask questions or report new hazards. Encouraging employees to ask questions and report dangerous conditions is the first step to conquering this issue. Offering safety training away from the workplace by someone other than the employee’s supervisor can help create a less intimidating environment. Delivering safety messages to non-English speakers using their language and culture can also help avoid this issue.
The following tips will help your firm deliver its safety messages and keep the questions and feedback flowing from employees.

  • Understand Your Workers’ Cultures. Having insight to your employees’ lives outside of work will help your company develop safety messages and programs that effectively reach those employees. This will not only help you understand your employees, it will also help you gain their respect and trust.


  • Demonstrate Before Doing. Give non-English speakers hands-on training using simple, neutral words and phrases. Require workers to demonstrate their understanding of safety guidelines before allowing them to work alone. This is a good idea for English-speaking employees as well.


  • Do Not Assume Workers Had Previous Safety Training. Instead, assume employees have no experience with hazardous equipment or chemicals and have received no safety training, especially if workers are from foreign countries. Many workers in other nations have had little training, and what they have received is often inadequate. Start training at ground zero and slowly build from scratch.


  • Encourage Employee Participation. One of the hallmarks of quality safety training is employee involvement. Provide workers opportunities to participate by asking questions, offering suggestions, and expressing feelings.

Hearing-Impaired Employees

Hearing-impaired workers also present unique communication challenges for employers. While language, illiteracy, fear, and embarrassment present the most common communication barriers for non-English speakers, the lone obstacle affecting hearing-impaired workers is an inability to hear well. When communicating with hearing-impaired workers, the challenge is not a lack of communication options, but rather learning to use those options effectively.

Hearing impairment has many causes, including birth defects, diseases, infections, medications, injuries, normal aging, and working in loud environments for extended periods. Not all hearing-impaired employees have the same condition; hard-of-hearing employees have difficulty hearing others without some type of hearing aid, while deaf workers are completely unable to understand speech. Knowing the hearing limitations your workers face is the first step to communicating properly.

Fortunately, while the communication obstacles are unique, more tools exist for communicating with hearing-impaired workers. Hiring employees or supervisors who can interpret sign language is often the most effective option for firms with hearing-impaired employees. Employees who know sign language can aid tremendously in the training process and can better explain the details of safety procedures. Workers or supervisors with signing skills are often invaluable in daily communication with hearing-impaired employees as well. The additional cost of hiring employees who can interpret sign language can be offset by a decreased need for printed safety materials.

Pamphlets, memos, and other written materials are also effective since a common language is shared and literacy is all but guaranteed. Many firms already distribute printed safety materials to all employees. Do not rely solely on written materials, however. Ensure hearing-impaired employees have opportunities to ask questions and seek clarification after the materials are distributed.

While hands-on training is a preferred method for communicating with non-English speakers, this type of training is often more difficult with hearing-impaired workers. A hearing-impaired employee may be able to gather primary concepts and ideas from hands-on training, but the all-important details will often be missed without other forms of communication. Have workers who know sign language conduct hands-on sessions with hearing-impaired workers and incorporate signs, charts, models, and other visual examples if feasible.

A unique safety challenge facing hearing-impaired employees is emergency procedures. While alarms and public address announcements may alert those with less-severe hearing loss, they will be inadequate for workers who have significant hearing deficiencies. Developing non-audible methods of alerting employees during emergencies is critical.

Probably the most effective, and inexpensive, emergency notification device for hearing-impaired employees is their coworkers. Consider using a buddy system to ensure all employees are accounted for during emergencies. Pair hearing-impaired workers with employees who hear well and instruct them to notify their partner during emergencies. If a manager or supervisor knows sign language, assign them the responsibility of accounting for all hearing-impaired workers during dangerous situations.

If none of those options are feasible, a variety of emergency notification devices are available. Visual alarms with strobe lights are a popular option that will alert all workers of danger, regardless of their hearing abilities. Flashing exit signs, visual or vibrating signals at individual workstations, vibrating pagers or other devices attached to the body, text messaging, and e-mail alerts can also notify workers of workplace emergencies.

The Five/Four Method

One method of successfully communicating safety messages to those who have trouble understanding or hearing English is the Five/Four Method: five communication steps and four message formats. The five communication steps will help mold the message into easy-to-understand guidelines while the four message formats will provide ideas to reach your employees.

This method will allow your firm to communicate safety messages in many different ways to ensure no employee is left unaware of vital information. Before implementing the Five/Four Method, identify your message and target audience. In short, what do you want to say and to whom do you want to say it? Consider meeting with employees and supervisors from different departments to generate ideas on developing and delivering the message.

The first of the five communication steps is to identify exactly what message needs to be delivered. At this point, you should develop the message from a general idea into a focused, concrete point that includes examples. Is the message about helping workers better understand operating procedures for specific machinery, or is it to share evacuation routes and procedures?

Second, identify the mindset and communication ability of your audience. A vice president of a Fortune 500 company communicates differently than a front-line factory worker. Safety messages should be put in terms workers can easily understand. Be sure to tailor your messages to the type of employee you want to reach.

The third step is to evaluate working environments and adapt your safety messages accordingly. Some employees may spend their entire day in an office atmosphere, while others toil away on construction sites. Identify the different risks that accompany each environment your workers encounter and develop site-specific safety messages. Be creative in the ways this information is disseminated in the workplace.

Fourth, pinpoint which types of verbal and non-verbal languages are used in your workplace. Avoid the assumption that all employees speak English or Spanish. A host of other languages are used in American companies, including French, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and German. Also, be sensitive to the different dialects of each spoken language. For example, Spanish is spoken in Mexico, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, but each of those locales add their unique flavor and pronunciations to their language. Finally, realize that different types of sign languages exist and that not all hearing-impaired workers communicate similarly. Just as some nations have their own verbal language, many have their own brand of sign language as well. If you are unsure which varieties of sign language are used in your firm, be sure to ask.

The fifth, and final, step is to consider your firm’s work atmosphere. A heavy-handed memo may fail to reach the casual workforce, and a bulletin board posting will probably be ineffective if such postings are often ignored. Consider your company’s unique atmosphere when developing safety messages.

After you have developed the message, the four message formats can help effectively deliver the information.

  • Wallet Cards. Wallet cards are an effective method of conveying short safety messages or post-accident instructions to employees. The cards can list accident-reporting procedures, first-aid techniques, instructions on filing a workers’ comp claim, and much more. Be sure cards are printed on both sides: one side in English and the other in the employee’s native language. Supervisors should also receive different cards explaining their roles during emergencies.


  • Safety Sheets. If wallet cards are impractical, consider using laminated, one-page safety sheets. Post the sheets in each work area using a non-removable method. Using brightly colored paper will help catch workers’ attention and will allow supervisors to distinguish the sheet from other posted documents. Be sure to point out the safety sheets and instruct workers to read them.


  • Pictograms. Pictograms can be used to help employees visualize the information posted on safety sheets. Pictograms are simple pictures or drawings that provide a visual element to written messages and work well with hands-on training. Consider using a pictogram to highlight an important safety message each month and giving each employee a copy.


  • Safety Packets. Safety packets are useful when delivering large amounts of information or when workers will need their own copy of the materials. Company policies regarding safety procedures, accident prevention, and accident reporting should be included along with any information pertinent to the employee’s specific duties. Safety packets are especially helpful for employees who drive throughout the day since the packets can be kept in the vehicle’s glove box.

While communicating with employees who either cannot speak or hear English well presents unique challenges, it need not cause additional hazards. Safety messages can be effectively delivered to workers using a variety of methods. Although ensuring non-English-speaking and hearing-impaired workers fully understand safety messages requires more time and energy, the result is well worth the effort. Employees who have received easy-to-understand safety training will be less likely to cause accidents and more productive on the job.

Jason Bohanon is a regular contributor to Tennessee Workers’ Comp Reporter. He frequently covers topics regarding workers’ comp and employment law issues.