The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is reminding employers that they must tailor any required training and enforcement guidance to the employee’s language, level of education, and other factors.
“Employee training required by OSHA standards must be presented in a manner that employees can understand, and to provide enforcement guidance to the area and regional offices relative to the Agency's training standards,” Assistant Secretary David Michaels wrote in a special enforcement memo April 28.
Employer's Training Obligation
Many OSHA standards require that employees receive training to perform their work in a safe and healthful manner. “Some of these standards require ‘training’ or ‘instruction’; others require ‘adequate’ or ‘effective’ training or instruction; and still others require training ‘in a manner’ or ‘in language’ that is understandable to employees,” the memo states.
“[R]egardless of the precise regulatory language,” however, all of the terms “mean to present information in a manner that employees receiving it are capable of understanding.”
OSHA has a long and consistent history of interpreting its standards and other requirements to require employers to present information in a manner that their employees can understand, the memo says. It cited, for example:
• CPL 2-238(D)(1998) ("[i]f the employees receive job instructions in a language other than English, then training and information to be conveyed under the [hazard communication standard] will also need to be conducted in a foreign language");
• A letter from Russell B. Swanson to Chip MacDonald (1999) ("instruction that employers must provide under §1926.21 must be tailored to the employees' language and education....").
Courts and the Commission have agreed with OSHA that an employer may not take advantage of "an adequately communicated work rule" when it did not communicate those rules to a non-English speaking employee in a language that employee could understand, the agency noted.
“In practical terms, this means that an employer must instruct its employees using both a language and vocabulary that the employees can understand,” the memo says.
“For example, if an employee does not speak or comprehend English, instruction must be provided in a language the employee can understand. Similarly, if the employee's vocabulary is limited, the training must account for that limitation.
“By the same token, if employees are not literate, telling them to read training materials will not satisfy the employer's training obligation.
“As a general matter, employers are expected to realize that if they customarily need to communicate work instructions or other workplace information to employees at a certain vocabulary level or in language other than English, they will also need to provide safety and health training to employees in the same manner.”
Similarly, employers must verify that employees have acquired the necessary training or information in a way that the employee can explain or demonstrate.
OSHA has created a web-based assistance tool to help employers meet their training obligations. The tool is intended to help employers with a Spanish-speaking workforce identify the Spanish-language outreach resources on OSHA's website. For more information, visit http://www.osha.gov/dcsp/compliance_assistance/quickstarts/hispanic/index_hispanic.html.