January 17, 2019 | Joe Geng |

Using Universal Language to Keep Migrant and ESL Workers Safe

The Japanese have always had a flair for the dramatic.

But I can tell you, as a tourist in Tokyo armed with little Japanese other than “kon’nichiwa” and “arigato”, I was grateful for the abundance of visual cues I found in the city. Not only was I able to find my way in a city where I was basically illiterate, but also could stay safe by avoiding hazards clearly documented in often amusing cartoons.

Visual representations, color, and sounds – these are all universal ‘languages’ that can transcend cultural barriers. No matter what language you speak, there’s no mistaking the meaning of a bright, red STOP sign or the ear-piercing scream of a police siren.

The same cross-cultural cues that can be used to guide bewildered tourists to the correct bathroom can also help to keep your migrant and English as a second language (ESL) workforce well-informed and safe.

The Challenges of a Culturally Diverse Workforce

According to studies, foreign-born workers face unique challenges in comparison to native workers, including:

  • Lower educational levels
  • Limited English language proficiency
  • Lower literacy rates
  • Limited knowledge of workers’ rights and employers’ responsibilities

Combine this with the fact that many foreign-born workers are performing high-risk, low-paying jobs and there is a recipe for safety disaster.

Of all the workers who died on the job in the U.S. in 2007, almost 20% were foreign-born. This means that workplace fatalities happen disproportionately to foreign-born workers; more effort needs to be put in to keeping this especially vulnerable population safe.

Lower Educational Levels

Often times, migrant workers are brought in to perform manual labor jobs as their labor is cheaper than that of native laborers. This is a frequent practice in the construction industry where an abundance of unskilled labor is required.

While most of these migrant workers can perform the job as well as a native worker, education levels may differ widely. For instance, the majority of workers in North American or Western European countries will have at least a high school education – this is not necessarily the case in other areas of the world.

Sometimes, simply translating your safety material is not enough as workers’ reading skills may be quite poor, even in their native language.

Limited English Language Proficiency

Workers with limited English skills can be a real problem when instructions are given verbally either in a group setting (such as going over safety rules) or on the job site (such as giving individual commands to workers).

Many workers will also hide their lack of proficiency for fear of losing their jobs, making it difficult for managers to determine if all workers understand safety protocols.

Lower Literacy Rates

It should be expected that some people will have lower than average literacy skills in their second language, but when dealing with migrant workers you may also have some who lack literacy skills in their native language.

As education standards differ between countries and cultures, don’t assume that all workers understand your safety materials simply because you have had them translated.

Limited Knowledge of Workers’ Rights and Employers’ Responsibilities

When it comes to keeping foreign-born workers safe, language isn’t always the only barrier. Different cultures encourage and engender different characteristics, sometimes impeding a safe work space. For instance, in some cultures showing obedience to authority is an absolute must and asking questions is seen as incompetence.

Due to cultural bias and limited knowledge of safety laws and regulations, migrant workers may engage in unsafe work or perform tasks they may not be comfortable performing.

Using Universal Language to Promote Safety

A study conducted in the UK asked health and safety managers and directors a variety of questions about working with migrant workers. Overwhelmingly, the biggest impediment to hiring migrant workers was lack of communication and the number one remedy was the use of translation (for written materials and having translators on site).

However, considering the challenges faced by migrant workers, it’s clear that translation alone is not enough to ensure your workforce is protected. Additionally, when there are more than two languages spoken on your worksite, translating materials becomes onerous and sometimes impossible.

Visual Cues

Much like the dramatic cartoons posted in Tokyo’s subway, graphics can convey safety messages in any language. If there are dangers workers need to be aware of or special protective gear that must be worn, make sure those messages are not only communicated with words but also visually.


The power of color has long been known and used on worksites, with high visibility clothing one of the best examples. When looking for ways to keep workers safe, consider where color can be incorporated to highlight hazards. For instance, coloring the handles of all box cutters red indicates to any user that it’s a dangerous instrument and to use caution – that message comes through in any language.


Instead of expecting people to make decisions that encourage safety, sometimes it’s better to ensure they do by making the unsafe choice as obnoxious as possible. Consider getting drivers to wear safety belts. Car manufacturers made sure drivers would buckle their seatbelts by playing an annoying buzzing sound until the belt is fastened. The same logic can be applied to a worksite. If there are areas or machines that pose a danger, having a loud noise go off when workers get within an unsafe distance sends an unmistakable message, no matter what language you speak.

When managing a workforce that includes migrant and ESL workers, keep these tips in mind to help make your worksite a safer environment:

  • When handing out health and safety material or performing safety demonstrations, never assume that everyone present has 100% comprehension
  • If workers don’t ask questions, don’t assume this means they know how to safely perform a task
  • Don’t expect migrant workers to behave and react as native ones; there may be cultural nuances at play
  • Use a universal language (visual, color, sound) where possible
Joe Geng
About Joe Geng
Vice President of Superior Glove