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The importance of language when providing safety training

Cheryl DeCooman for Progressive Dairy Published on 30 July 2021

Think back to your first job: Were you scared to ask questions because you didn’t want your boss to think you were not able to do your job properly? Did you feel like you would rather “just figure it out” than risk looking like you didn’t know what you were doing?

Now, put yourself in the shoes of employees who come to a completely different country, where they don’t speak the language, and they want to do well because this job is a way they can support their families and themselves. On top of all of the typical emotions and feelings employees have when they start a new job, there is the added barrier of being in an unfamiliar country having difficultly communicating with others.

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Across Canada, workers in every field, including agriculture, have the right to a safe workplace. In Ontario, the Occupational Health and Safety Act lists three fundamental rights of every employee:

  1. The right to know
  2. The right to participate
  3. The right to refuse unsafe work

Part of the “right to know” includes the employer’s obligation to provide adequate training and ensure that employees understand the hazards in their workplace and are competent to do their job safely. In order to do this effectively, you must provide training in a language the employee thoroughly understands.

I want you to think about the last time you were watching television and a character started speaking in a different language without subtitles. Did you understand what they were saying? Did you understand the point they were trying to get across? Sure, maybe you were able to assume some things through body language, but you probably did not completely understand the scene. Now, think about that same scene, but there were subtitles in your first language. It is much easier to understand what is going on, which helps you to comprehend the entirety of the show or movie. Finally, think about when you watch a movie or television show in your first language. You are able to fully understand the program and what is going on.

This situation is similar to having an employee whose first language is not the primary language spoken on the farm. In Canada, that might be English or French.

As I said, the employer, aka the owner/manager of the farm, has the responsibility to provide adequate training to their employees about the risks and hazards they may encounter in their roles. This is to protect the safety of all employees. But just like how we truly cannot understand a movie that is not in our language, how can we expect workers to truly understand the hazards and risks of their jobs if it is not explained to them in a language they understand?

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Tools to use to provide meaningful training in someone’s primary language

1. Provide a trainer in the employee’s primary language

Some of our clients have larger group training sessions when multiple new employees start. If there are multiple primary languages for new employees, it can be helpful to hold multiple training sessions. For example, one in English and one in Spanish. Ensure that you have competent trainers for each session. You should also ensure that the materials you are using in the training (i.e., PowerPoint presentations, quizzes, handout materials, etc.) is also in the first or preferred language of the employees.

Alternatively, if you have a smaller group of individuals to train, you can combine multiple languages, using a translator, into one training session. It is important to note that you should still provide the presentation and other materials in the employee’s first language. It is not enough to just provide a translated training manual but still have the employee sit through an English training session. Put yourself in their situation, I am sure it would be extremely confusing. It may take more time, but using a translator, translation app or other method to provide the entire training in the employee’s preferred language will ensure the employee fully understands training content.

2. Provide documentation in the employee’s primary language

Would you sign a legal document without being able to read it because you could not understand the language? Probably not. Why would we ask employees to do that then? Always ensure that the documentation employees are signing is also in a language they can understand.

3. Online training

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In our proprietary software, we used a professional translator to translate our training modules with audio into different languages for employees to take. When one of our clients gets a new employee, we have made it part of our process to ask what their preferred language is, so we can ensure that the new employee is truly understanding training.

4. Put yourself in their shoes

As mentioned before, it might be hard to think about where to begin. Start by putting yourself in that employee’s shoes and see what the challenges might be and how you can overcome them. For example, having phones available with an app that can do speech translation, providing signage in their first language, etc.

5. Invite feedback

After training, it is important to ask employees for feedback on their experience. There is no sense in continuing to do something that is not working, and by asking for feedback, employees can help you to identify problems you might not have noticed before. Think of training as a joint experience that everyone should be involved in. end mark

Cheryl DeCooman

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