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Question of the Week: OSHA Policy on Multilingual Workplaces

Posted on 1/4/2011 by James Griffin

Q. We have a multilingual workplace. Many of our employees have a native language other than English. Is there an OSHA requirement that obligates employers to ensure that their employees can communicate with supervisors and coworkers in English at the work site so that they can understand safety training and instructions and coordinate safely with coworkers?

A. Employers must train their employees and provide hazard communications and instructions in a manner that the employees can understand.

While there are many OSHA workplace safety standards for both General Industry (29 CFR 1910) and Construction (29 CFR 1926) that require training and instructions, none of these standards specifically require that this information be conveyed and understood in English.

The employer’s duty is to train and instruct employees in how to comply with OSHA standards and to avoid hazards in the work environment. This means that the employers must present the information in a manner that employees are able to understand.

As stated by David Michaels PhD, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, in the “OSHA Training Standards Policy Statement,” dated 04/28/2010: “[R]egardless of the precise regulatory language, the terms “train” and “instruct,” as well as other synonyms, mean to present information in a manner that employees receiving it are capable of understanding.”

In addition, it is common that, for safety reasons, construction employees need to be able to communicate with supervisors and coworkers. However, an OSHA obligation in that regard would be met by any system in which that communication could reliably occur; there is no OSHA requirement that the communication system be based on the English language.

Sources: OSHA letter of interpretation number 20071001-7893 [July 26, 2010]; OSHA memo, David Michaels, PhD, “OSHA Training Standards Policy Statement,”April 28, 2010

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