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Overcoming language barriers in safety training

Study looks for strategy to provide more effective and affordable method for company’s safety training needs

Language barriers are often a complication in the global economy. With multinational and multicultural workforces, companies often turn to a lingua franca—a language that is adopted as a common language between speakers whose native languages are different—to provide procedures and training for their workers.

However, this practice might not always be best, especially for environment, health and safety (EHS) training in industrial, chemical and other high-risk industries.

A research team from the Texas A&M University School of Public Health found that EHS trainings translated into workers’ native language provide a more effective and affordable method for a company’s safety training needs than lingua franca.

The team, which was comprised of S. Camille Peres, PhD, Mark Benden, PhD, CPE, Adam Pickens, PhD, MPH, Matthew Lee Smith, PhD, MPH, CHES, William D. Johnson, Ranjana K. Mehta, PhD, and Mallory A. Johnson, investigated a strategy for overcoming language barriers associated with performance, comprehension and training effectiveness.

The results of the study were recently published in the International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics.

The team performed two studies and compared the effectiveness of trainings that don’t use language, such as animations, and English language versions of EHS training when utilized with native English participants, non-native English language participants and non-English language participants.

The first study had U.S.-based employees—either native or non-native English speakers—complete one of the two trainings. The employees were then assessed on their reaction to and comprehension of the training. In the second study, 78 Brazilian and Chinese employees completed trainings and were assessed identically to the employees in the first study.

The results of the first study showed that English was more effective and preferred by both language groups. The team determined that this may be due to the workers’ English proficiency and the number of channels of communication provided by the training medium.

“Some previous work has shown that non-native English speakers have lower performance with materials in English than native English speakers,” Peres said. “Thus, we thought the workers may perform better with the non-lingual, or animated, training. However, in this study we did not find that. Not only did the non-native English speakers do better with the English training, they performed equally as well as the native English speakers.”

The second study results showed that the animated training was more effective and was preferred by both groups. The team determined this may be because the non-English language participants had no channels for processing the information versus the animated training’s single channel information.

In the second study, the Brazilian participants outperformed their Chinese counterparts in the English language version of the trainings, while the Chinese participants outperformed their Brazilian counterparts in the animated training medium.

“We were surprised to see the differences in performances between the Brazilian and Chinese workers on the English and animated training,” Peres said. “We expected that the animated would be better for the groups but not that there would be a difference between them.”

The results of the study clearly demonstrate that trainings and documentation provided in a language understood by the employee is effective and preferred, and non-lingual materials may be an effective alternative. However, the team also notes that further study is still warranted to better understand training effectiveness related to different modes and media delivery, culture, gender, industry and topic.

“Although the results of these studies may seem obvious, previously there has been little empirical work investigating the impacts of the use of English training for non-English speaking employees,” Peres said.

Noelle Sweany, PhD, from the Department of Educational Psychology at Texas A&M University was also a collaborator on this study.

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