This Common Oversight May Be Endangering Your Employees

When you walk onto a job site or into a distribution center, chances are you’re likely to hear more Spanish, Vietnamese, or Mandarin being spoken than English. With the multitude of benefits that accompany an increasingly diverse workforce come the challenges of ensuring employees are all on the same page. A unified, comprehensive language strategy is imperative, yet many business leaders are not providing employees these critical development opportunities, potentially putting them—and their business—at risk.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), an estimated 25 percent of job-site accidents can be attributed to language barriers. Effective communication is particularly crucial in the manufacturing, automotive and construction industries, in part because employee safety is dependent on properly communicating workplace safety procedures and protocols.

Communication about languages is critical starting at the management level, and yet it is often overlooked.

A recent study reveals 90 percent of managers say their teams face language proficiency challenges, yet only one-third are actually working with their HR departments to overcome these linguistic obstacles. Managers and HR departments must work together to ensure their employees have the tools in place to stay safe on the job.

Of course, not all accidents can be prevented, but research shows employers may be overlooking language in their workplace safety strategy. Companies simply cannot afford to leave employees susceptible to accidents in the field that result from miscommunication. Maintaining the safety and security of employees means ensuring they understand warnings, protocols, and standard operating procedures no matter their native language. It also means ensuring employees can learn informally from one another about best practices.

One Virginia-based construction company sought to improve employee safety and workplace culture by implementing a standardized online language learning program through Rosetta Stone. Recognizing that many of its field employees were native Spanish speakers, the company provided language training to help them sharpen their English language skills, ultimately improving not only communication and safety outcomes, but also increasing employees’ opportunities for personal and career advancement.

The implementation of a cohesive, targeted language strategy provided employees with the skills necessary to communicate better on the job, including understanding critical information to meet safety guidelines and comprehending safety instruction. In addition, the English-speaking Operations staff learned Spanish to help communicate safety procedures in the native language of line-level workers. This “meet in the middle” language strategy paid off, with the company seeing a 35 percent decrease in its incident rate since implementing the language learning program; in 2008, the company had an incident rate of 1.44. Company results for 2012 show an incident rate of 1.17 – 92 percent below the average for nonresidential general contractors, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Rosetta Stone recently conducted a global survey of more than 900 businesses worldwide that reveals implementing language training is advantageous for other reasons in addition to improvements in safety and incident rates. Of the 1,185 respondents who work in the manufacturing, construction or automotive industries, 72 percent report “language training has helped me perform better in my job.” Additionally, 67 percent reported that learning a new language has made them more confident in their work and 71 percent said that because they were provided access to this training, they felt that their company takes an interest in their development. These results clearly show the positive impact the investment in the company’s language program had on employees.

The implementation of a language strategy may seem daunting, but there are many free resources available to help HR departments partner with company leaders to assess how language skills will help improve both their safety and business strategies. The process can be streamlined into three steps:

1. Document linguistic and cultural competency skills that exist within your
workforce, as well as diagnose those skills gaps.

2. Map the necessary language and cultural communication skills to your
organizational goals.

3. Infuse global communication skill development into employee development

Be proactive in identifying language gaps in your organization. Oftentimes, these gaps go unnoticed until they have caused irreparable damage. A language strategy may not be the first thing that comes to mind when planning a safety plan or business strategy, but employers have quickly realized how indispensable it can be.

Sheerin Vesin is the HR practice lead for Rosetta Stone’s Enterprise & Education Marketing Group where she leads research and thought leadership in global human capital trends for Rosetta Stone’s growing B2B segment. Prior to joining Rosetta Stone in 2011, she held a variety of business development and marketing roles in the U.S. and Europe for a social technology start-up and a B2B publisher. Before joining the global business community, Sheerin was a foreign language instructor with the French National Ministry of Education, where she developed an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) curriculum, and taught at multiple grade levels, including in higher education. She has also worked as a freelance French-English translator. Sheerin was a finalist for the 2014 Women in Technology Rising Star award.