After addressing the audience, the safety trainer asks the students if they understand. Twenty heads all shake yes, but when the instructor calls on one employee to repeat the instructions, he just sits there silent.

Why? Because the employee's primary language is not English and he did not understand.

How, then, do you get information across to those employees for whom English is not their primary language so they will learn and understand?

More and more companies are requiring that all employees speak English and offer ESL (English as a Second Language) classes. Some of these companies provide incentives to employees for successfully graduating from such classes and using what they learned. For these companies, all training is provided in English.

Simple rules

Here are ten tips on providing safety training to a multicultural workforce:

1) First, speak slowly, not loudly, and repeat the important points several times, using different words. Ask the employees with heavy accents to talk slowly to you so that you can better understand them.

2) Use simple language. Avoid acronyms, jargon or slang phrases. How do you explain to someone what the "get-go" is or what is "between a rock and a hard place"? Even though OSHA calls a respirator a filtering facepiece, your employees probably know it better as a mask.

3) Use a translator. Richard Hawk, president of Richard Hawk and Co., a leading training provider in the field of communication and safety says, "If possible, use a translator or someone from the class who is proficient in English and the other language." Students relate better to one of their own.

4) Demonstrate. Hawk also believes in demonstrating what you are saying. "Get attendees to follow suit (assuming the training describes physical action)." However, if you know that one employee can do the skill correctly, have that employee perform it slowly while you describe to the rest of the class the steps involved in doing that skill.

5) Use props. Showing as many items as you can helps students stay focused, and it also livens up your presentation, says Hawk. "I use props to help with analogies. For example, when describing the difference between ingesting and inhaling I've used cookies and balloons."

6) Use pictures. Many non-English speaking employees can relate to the subject of a picture rather than words.

7) Encourage class participation. Eileen Curran, a Registered Nurse and company health and safety trainer, says, "Once you have shown the class how to do the skill, allow them to practice the skill in pairs or small groups as you observe and comment. Be sensitive to those cultures that will not volunteer to comment on someone else's performance. In these situations, ask leading questions. For example, you have a group of employees putting on respirators and one employee does not put his straps on properly. Ask the observing employee a leading question, 'How should he have put on that respirator?' This will allow you to determine if the employee understands and can explain what is correct."

8) Give handouts. Give the employees something to take away with them that explains what the training covered. It should be specific, detailed information the employee can use. This allows the employee to study the information or have someone translate it for them if necessary.

9) Be relevant. Explain the significance of the training to the employee and how it will relate to his or her job personally. How can they use it outside of work? First-aid training is a good example. Many worksites need trained first-aiders, but employees are reluctant to volunteer. Find out what some of their outside interests and hobbies are. Show them how knowledge of first-aid could benefit them while they participate in their hobby.

10) Conduct follow-up. A day or two after the class, call, email or visit with employees and ask them questions about the class. See how much they remember. This shows them that you are serious about them learning and understanding the material. Follow up again a week later and then a month later. This gives you, the instructor, a method to gauge retention.

Patience, teacher

Many employees, even those that speak and understand English, may not fully understand a new topic or skill. Be patient and repeat the information in many ways using some or all of the suggestions listed above.


Richard Hawk, president, Richard Hawk and Company, Bridgeton, N.J.,

Eileen T. Curran, RN, nurse and health & safety trainer, (company name withheld)