Languages Create Safety Concerns

February 20, 2006
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In an era in which West Michigan manufacturers are facing systemic changes, they are also, with increasing regularity, being asked to absorb a cross-cultural work force in a safe and productive manner.

Between 1999 and 2000, ComstockPark automotive supplier Behr Industries Corp. welcomed roughly 40 Bosnian refugees into a 600-employee cultural melting pot that already contained Hispanic, Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants.

The result was a richly diverse, but chaotic, working environment. Translators were identified among the staff to allow each culture to communicate with supervisors. Often, interpreters were contracted from outside translation services, especially to deal with issues such as health care, workers' compensation and employee benefits.

"It created problems for us," said Jim Dybevik, director of human resources and development since 2001. "People need to have an understanding of not only 'Am I safe?' but 'How do I understand the certain commands that are essential to my life?'"

After several costly years of using interpreters and multilingual literature, the company consulted with its legal counsel and developed a policy requiring employees to have at least a working comprehension of the English language.

For four years now, all new hires have been screened for English comprehension. Existing employees have received classes teaching English as a second language. For the few who have been slow to learn the language, the company works with them individually.

Partly due to locally based missionary organizations, West Michigan is one of a select number of communities that have attracted large pockets of refugees, in addition to a generous population of traditional immigrants.

As such, West Michigan employees may come from Sudan, Vietnam, Bosnia, Serbia, the Middle East, Mexico, and Central and South America, among other locales. It's a cultural shift — found not only in manufacturing but also in food service, construction and general labor — that has left safety and quality managers scratching their heads.

"We have employers here in Grand Rapids that I've worked with that have eight, nine, 10 different dialects on staff," said Richard Perry, a risk consultant with Marsh USA in Grand Rapids. "Obviously, that is something they'll need to address from a safety standpoint."

Whether through an interpreter or a bilingual employee, employers need to be able to communicate with workers in a language they understand — if only to meet national Occupational Safety and Health Administration and MIOSHA standards. Whatever the communication difficulty, employers are still required to educate workers on the hazards of equipment and chemicals they may face.

"You need to make sure training is done in a way that's understandable," said Martha Yoder, deputy director of MIOSHA. "It definitely presents more challenges, but not speaking English is not an acceptable excuse for not complying."

She suggests employers seek feedback from workers to prove an understanding of standards. After all, that's what MIOSHA will do when it comes to inspect. Several enforcement officers speak Spanish, and the agency regularly contracts outside interpreters.

"These individuals need to be able to know they can ask questions," Yoder said. "A lot of times, you see employees with good intent, trying to do their job really well, but they don't know their boundaries."

For Spanish-speaking individuals, training is slightly easier. There are plentiful publications and resources available in Spanish at the state and federal level, and from the private sector. MIOSHA conducts several bilingual safety seminars each year, and last summer used an intern to translate materials into Spanish.

But such efforts are only the beginning.

"The bilingual Spanish versus English is the least of concerns," said Eric Offerdahl of Aegis Safety Consulting in Grand Rapids. "It's easy to find training manuals in Spanish, but not so easy to find it in Sudanese."

For a client in Minneapolis, Offerdahl sought out a translator from the local Sudanese community group.

"And Spanish is still an issue," he added. "The challenge, depending on where you are in the country, is there is a wide range of dialects."

At one site in Los Angeles, the safety coordinator he was working with was a native of Peru and fluent in both Spanish and English. But the Peruvian had difficulty understanding his Mexican coworkers.

George Waite, director of Grand RapidsCommunity College's Tassell M-TEC, has experienced the bilingual workplace first hand. With the facility located in the middle of Grand Rapids' most Hispanic neighborhood, it has been very successful in attracting Spanish-speaking students.

"The learning environment here is similar to what you'll find in the workplace," Waite said. "Construction equipment, chopping wood, automated fastening, metal forming presses, welding equipment …"

The school has had success in a fashion similar to that used by manufacturers: by clustering individuals by language.

"If it's apparent they can't understand English or the way we're describing it to them, we won't go any further down the learning curve until they've mastered the steps," Waite said.

He was careful to point out that sometimes the same communication issues exist with English speakers. The school has a large number of students with hearing, vision and vocal impairments who require the same attention as a student who doesn't speak English.

"This applies also from an adult learner standpoint," added GRCC training solutions instructor Dan Keyes. "Adult learners don't learn by being lectured or by reading. They learn by doing, by applying and by seeing visual reminders."

This is why many companies now use pictograms as their safety and quality signage, Keyes said.

"Less verbiage and more pictures, work instructions right up there in front of people," he said. "When you start doing that type of thing, the fact that you don't speak English becomes less of an issue, because you can understand by looking at the picture."    

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