Safety and OSHA News

Does safety training for these custodians need to be in Spanish?

A group of Hispanic custodians in Colorado are claiming they are victims of discrimination because their employer isn’t providing various workplace documents — including those involving safety training — in Spanish.

The 12 custodians have taken their case to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) which is conducting a full investigation.

They claim the Auraria Higher Education Center is leaving employees that only speak Spanish in the dark about the terms and conditions of their employment, changes in their working status and safety.

Officials at the Auraria Center say there is no state law in Colorado requiring complete translations. The employer believes employees should understand some basic English.

“It’s not our goal to provide every document translated or every conversation translated,” said an Auraria vice-president, Blaine Nickeson. “Our employees are expected to interact with members of the public, and we expect them to be able to understand English.”

Tim Markham, an attorney representing the employees, said issues because of the lack of communication in Spanish include janitors being pricked by needles. Auraria custodian Bertha Ribota told a Denver TV station that she was injured at work because she couldn’t read a warning sign that was in English.

Other institutes of higher learning in the area, including the University of Northern Colorado and the University of Colorado, provide their policies, procedures and other documents in several languages.

What does OSHA say?

It will be up to the EEOC to decide whether this is discrimination.

However, if it were up to OSHA, Auraria would probably be facing a citation.

In the Training Standards Policy Statement issued by OSHA administrator David Michaels in 2010, he said all training must be presented in a manner and language that employees can understand. This includes the revised training for hazard communication that employers are required to conduct by Dec. 1, 2013.

This policy dates back before the current administration. A statement in 2007 from then-OSHA head Edwin Foulke stated, “Employee training required by OSHA standards must be presented in a manner than employees can understand … it is the Agency’s position that, regardless of the precise regulatory language, the terms “train” and “instruct,” as well as other synonyms, mean to present information in a manner that employees receiving it are capable of understanding.”

There’s another situation in which this applies: when workers are illiterate. “If employees are not literate, telling them to read training materials will not satisfy the employer’s training obligation,” says the current OSHA guidance.

If you were creating OSHA regulations, would you require training to be in other languages if employees didn’t understand English? Let us know what you think about this in the comments below.

OSHA Reporting & You
Print Friendly

Subscribe Today

Get the latest and greatest safety news and insights delivered to your inbox.


  1. Aside from any politics that anyone might bring up in this discussion, I think it’s important to have a basic common sense approach to the question of bilingual safety program.
    Many of the plants I’ve worked in on the Gulf Coast have minimum English Proficiency requirements for their contractors. They do this in the name of safety to ensure that everyone can read safety postings. Still, it’s been my experience that some contractor employees are more proficient than others. We hold our safety meetings in english, however, to ensure that everyone understands an important subject, occasionally we will have a supervisor repeat it in Spanish.
    I don’t see tis as any different than say giving a training in English and an employee stops you because they don’t understand a word or the meaning of a sentence, and ask for another, sometimes simpler, translation. An example happened to me earlier this week, while giving Heat Stress training I was listing the symptoms of Heat Stroke and said that a persons “pupils may be constricted”. A craftworker stopped me and asked what “constricted” meant. I told him then made a mental note to explain that from now on when I give this training.
    Speaking strictly as a safety professional, that’s my only concern.

  2. Juliette Garesche says:

    Our company gives quizzes after each training session and we quickly became aware we were not reaching our Spanish and Polish speaking employees. Since that time we have purchased training modules and quizzes in Spanish, and used in-house translators in Polish. As an example of the confusion, when English is not well understood: We trained employees to evacuate the building and gather at the “Evacuation Assembly Area” outside. Our Spanish speaking employees thought we wanted them to gather at the “Assembly” area, a portion of our production. The question came to me, “Why does management want us to stay in “Assembly” if the building is burning?” This confusion occurred even though we showed slides of the “Evacuation Assembly Area” sign, and maps of the property. Obviously we had a language problem that needed to be addressed.

    • Cal Davis says:

      Honestly, I can see where that could cause confusion to NATIVE English speakers. I would simply call it the “Evacuation Area” or better yet the “Evacuation Point.”

  3. Mezmerized says:

    If our goal is to provide a safe working environment for our employees, then a multi-lingual approach may be the best solution. You should want an effective means in which to convey safety related training regardless of a person’s ability to read / understand / speak a certain language. Conversely, if an applicant for a particular position cannot communicate well enough with management or fellow employees to a degree that it may jeapordize the safety of co-workers, it could greatly affect the decision to hire that person – due strictly to safety concerns.

  4. Safety 101 says:

    I work in heavy construction. We provide full training in both English and Spanish. It has made a huge difference in the employees’ attitudes towards safety. I am not bilingual, but have several people that are. Even with the English speaking employees you have to explain some things different ways to get the point across.

    My company’s interpretation of the OSHA requirement is that training be provided in the language that the person comprehends. In our case Spanish or English. We had a similar situation several years ago when the crews were primarily made up of Haitians we found a French interpreter and used French language training materials.

    I would not consider the case listed in the article as discrimination, but it is a real safety issue.

  5. I would simply hire English speaking employees, regardless of background. There are so many variations of Spanish alone that it would be impossible to meet these requirements. Many of the Spanish speakers have also come to my locations being functionally illiterate.

    • someone brought up a good point here ” Even with the English speaking employees you have to explain some things different ways to get the point across. ” I also concur with your observation that some Spanish speakers at your locations are functionally illiterate- I find this in itself a safety issue, namely, being illiterate in reading and writing brings up a pretty good probability the illiterate one is also oblivious to basic physics. Contractors need hire the BEST, BRIGHTEST, and not the cheapest. I know of an employer who hires Hispanics ONLY- his reason? “they work hard and are honest” Baloney. Everyone is honest- at least, most people are. He’s cutting out the possibility of hiring a better, smarter worker. I also know this, because I know his workers- and they are not so hard working- in fact I wouldn’t hire them if you paid me.

  6. My family immigrated to this country. As an immigrant my folks had to learn American history, to read and write ENGLISH. I would not expect anything less if we had “landed” in France or Spain.
    Where does this thing stop.
    In my last job I had a number of Spanish speaking employees and had to use a translator. There would be certain times that I felt I was the blunt of the translators humor during these sessions.

Speak Your Mind