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Breaking Language Barriers: Key to Safer and More Inclusive Workplaces

11 June, 2024

Two construction workers looking at a laptop on a job site.

From workplaces and public spaces to transportation hubs and construction sites, the presence of clear and comprehensible safety signs in multiple languages is essential to promoting safety, compliance, and inclusivity. Here are the top reasons why multilingual signage is important in the workplace.  

The Purpose of Multilingual Signage 

DuraLabel-Language_Barriers_FloatThere are over 350 languages spoken in the United States, according to the US Census Bureau, with some of the most widely spoken being Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, and Arabic. 

More than 1 out of 6 people are foreign-born workers, according to data collected in 2020 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). 17 percent of the U.S. workforce was born in another country and may speak a language other than English. It is important to communicate effectively with employees in every industry. Safety messaging must be understood by all employees, regardless of demographics.   

The BLS reported the workforce demographics across all industry sectors comprised of: 

  • 77% White 
  • 19% Latino 
  • 13% Black or African American 
  • 7% Asian 

Companies seek the best workers available, from all cultures and backgrounds. A diverse workforce may include multiple native languages among workers. Language barriers can lead to miscommunication, decreased productivity, and difficulty during group collaboration. 

A good way to fix the language barrier issue is to create a level playing field with proper signage in the languages spoken by workers at your facilities. Multilingual safety signs can be useful in several ways, such as:  

1. Enhanced Safety and Compliance 

The primary function of safety signage is to prevent accidents and injuries by providing clear instructions and warnings. In environments where people speak different languages, signs not presented in the native language of the people who view it can lead to misunderstandings and result in potentially hazardous situations.  

The signs are designed to prevent misunderstandings and ensure that everyone in the facility is given a fair opportunity to follow safety protocols, which will ultimately reduce the risk of accidents and injuries.  

Multilingual signage has been impactful in the safety industry according to training research conducted by Chief Learning Solutions Officer, Dr. Matthew Casey in 2017, at Akorbi. According to OSHA, workplaces that have introduced and implemented multilingual signs in their workplaces have experienced a 25% reduction in job-related accidents, which can be attributed to improved understanding of safety protocols among non-English speaking workers.  

Organizations can meet regulatory requirements that mandate effective communication of safety information to a diverse workforce by providing proper safety signage in multiple languages.  

2. Legal and Regulatory Compliance  

Many countries have regulations and standards that mandate the use of multilingual signage in workplaces and public areas. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) recognizes that language can be a safety barrier and requires that signs must be posted in both English and the primary language spoken by the workforce if English is not the primary language. 

OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) also requires that safety data sheets (SDS) and labels be provided in languages that are spoken in the workplace, which often coincides with translating other documents that correspond with the safety signs.  

When creating signage, use universally recognized symbols and pictograms alongside text to bridge language gaps. OSHA often looks to the ANSI for guidelines. ANSI Z535.1 sets forth the technical definitions, color standards, and color tolerances for safety colors, while its extended version ANSI Z535.2 regulates requirements for design, application, and use of safety signs in facilities. 

The signage layouts are generally formatted to incorporate a safety pictogram symbol panel, so it is associated with and shared by both the first and second language headers and word message panels. 

Compliance with regulations not only helps organizations avoid legal penalties, but it also demonstrates a commitment to worker rights and safety. 

3. Inclusivity and Accessibility  

Bilingual OSHA signs and labels make information accessible to a wider audience. They cater to speakers of both the dominant language and minority languages, ensuring that everyone can understand important messages, instructions, and information. For workplaces where employees speak multiple languages, multilingual signage is helpful because it ensures non-native speakers have equal access to important safety information. 

Inclusivity is vital in multicultural organizations with a diverse workforce. Providing safety information in multiple languages helps create a sense of belonging and ensures everyone can navigate their work environment safely.  

4. Efficiency and Productivity

Clear communication is key to maintaining efficiency and productivity in the workplace. When safety instructions are easily understood by all employees, the risk of accidents and errors decreases, leading to smoother operations.  

A key component of maintaining a safe work environment is comprehensive and effective training. According to research conducted by Seyens,  80% of human learning occurs through the processing of visual information. Safety signs accompanied by images and other visual tools offer an ideal medium to capture workers’ attention and convey important safety messages.  Workers can better understand the risks associated with their work environment when visual tools are incorporated into safety training programs.  

The Training should be reinforced through visual imagery throughout the job site, because workers can significantly reduce the likelihood of an accident with the knowledge they were given to be able to recognize and avoid potential hazards. 

Multilingual signage is also effective at reducing the need for additional training or translation services, which can ultimately save time and resources. Employees who feel safe and well-informed are more likely to perform their tasks confidently and efficiently.

DuraLabel Resources  

Multilingual safety signage is more than a regulatory requirement. It is an important component of effective safety management and inclusive communication. Organizations can enhance safety, compliance, and accessibility by addressing the linguistic diversity of individuals.  

DuraLabel's free LabelForge PRO software comes preinstalled on the Toro Max and Kodiak Max print systems. The software allows users to design and print custom signs and labels for any situation.  With the latest version of the software, users can now break through language barriers in their workplace by creating compliance and custom labels in 14 languages.

Through careful planning, professional collaboration, and ongoing commitment, organizations can ensure that their safety messages are understood, regardless of language.  

Learn more about DuraLabel’s free OSHA Safety Signage Instant Action Guide. It provides users with best practices for labeling under OSHA and ANSI requirements and standards. It also helps create OSHA/ANSI-compliant safety signs, all while providing a facility site inspection checklist. Download your free guide today and call 1-888-820-4631 to speak to a safety professional who can guide you through the process.  

Read Next: 

Maximizing Productivity: 4 Tips for Optimizing Field Printing Processes  

OSHA Signage Instant Action Guide
Label in accordance with OSHA and ANSI standards.


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