By Lucy Perry, Publisher's Perspective, Lift and Access.com
February 10, 2009 – Purdue University researchers have found that specialized language used in safety training for construction workers may not be understood by newbies or non-English-speaking workers. It’s a situation that could put these workers in danger. The studies looked at mandatory 10-hour OSHA training, where words such as “PTO,” “bird caging,” “lockout/tagout,” and “lanyard,” are commonly used. I was interested in learning about the safety challenges presented by jargon used in training and on the job.
First the study looked at safety training issues for employees new to construction, examining the causes behind the high number of work-related deaths and injuries in construction. Previous studies indicated they are more likely to occur at the beginning of a construction worker’s career. The team conducted surveys with construction industry student interns before OSHA training, after training and before working on a construction site, and after working at their first internship. Results indicated the training is successful in creating awareness of safety issues, but many interns, mostly college construction engineering management students, didn’t understand terminology and acronyms presented. Yet safety instructors believed students understood the meanings of unfamiliar words before working on the construction site.
The second study looked specifically at Hispanic construction workers in Louisiana who were helping to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. The survey looked at this sector because it was prone to a high number of fatalities. They studied Hispanics’ perceptions of safety, their levels of safety training, and their familiarity with construction terms. The study offered the same list of words as in the student study and found that less than 20 percent of Hispanic workers understood any of the terms used in OSHA training, and some terms were understood by only 3 percent.
“Safety trainers must cover a lot of material in a short amount of time and, therefore, use a lot of jargon and acronyms,” the Purdue researchers reported. “These terms are familiar to them and those in the industry, but this lingo isn’t understood by everyone on the construction site. Not understanding any part of it puts workers at risk.”
Curious as to how critical an issue this really is, I turned to the American Society of Safety Engineers, which is working on the issue of literacy among workers. ASSE has found that workers who may be considered illiterate in English may also have never learned to read or write in their native language.
“This is an issue our members have been addressing for years, especially our Latino safety professionals group,” emailed an ASSE public relations staffer. Dwight Henson, an instructor for Industrial Training International, says he runs into two barriers to successful crane training: the individual who has not adequately learned to read and write, and the individual who cannot read and write in the language used in the workplace. “It’s not possible for an individual to safely operate a crane when he or she cannot read a load chart or the many pages of notes that crane manufacturers require operators to use,” says Henson.
Yet safety trainer Jeff York of Signal-Rite says in doing signalperson and rigger training, his staff has found that if Spanish-speaking students are taught how to deliver the signal, they can do just as well as English-speaking workers.
The researchers make a good point when they suggest that visuals—illustrating construction-specific words—would improve understanding. “We shouldn’t eliminate the acronyms and jargon from the training because these are terms workers will need to know, but what we can do is associate visual elements with these words so they are familiar with the terms and what they mean,” researchers said.