The value of good cultural fit in tailoring safety messages for migrant workers

Director of health and safety, WSP/Parsons Brinckerhoff, Middle East

As the world of work becomes more globalised, safety and health professionals are increasingly interacting with workers from different countries who may have low levels of literacy or do not speak English as their first language. In a multi-ethnic society it’s paramount that information can be understood by all employees. 

Levels of awareness and competence can create significant communication challenges in some jurisdictions. On some projects in the Middle East, migrant workers may never have seen the tools they are to use and may not comprehend the risks. In such situations, induction and on-the-job training need a highly-practical focus, clearly showing unsafe practices versus safe ones. Non-verbal communication, supported by videos and images, and innovative techniques, such as industrial theatre, can convey safety and health messages. 

It’s important to provide adequate time for workers to absorb the necessary information. Interpreters can encourage them to express views in their preferred language. If the size of the workforce or lack of resources make this impractical, perhaps colleagues can be trained to interpret for each other. Translating instructions can help to ensure that safety and health requirements are understood, provided the translation is thoroughly checked. 

Awareness of different cultures and religions helps gain a better understanding of workers’ individual concerns. You don’t need to become an expert in the various cultures and countries, but exploring what others think and do will help you to reflect on your own assumptions. This is necessary to develop a level of empathy with the workforce and to appreciate that other cultures may deal with safety and health matters in different ways. Learning about other people’s cultures helps identify where OSH improvements can be made. The key is to have an open mind and relish the experience of learning about others.

The key is to have an open mind and relish the experience of learning about others

It’s easy to assume that migrant workers understand common English terminology, particularly if some have a relatively good command of the language. In an example of teaching fire safety to a group of migrant workers, it was assumed that delegates understood the word “arson”. Subsequently it became apparent that several did not understand the term. No one had mentioned anything during the training, illustrating a tendency in some cultures to avoid raising questions, to save face in front of peers. 

Try to minimise the use of idioms and colloquialisms. In another session, the trainer referred to management sitting in “ivory towers”. Afterwards, a puzzled trainee asked where these towers were located. This is a common pitfall, as it is natural to default to regularly-used phrases. 

Migrant workers, like other employees, take their ideas, assumptions and experiences with them to the workplace. Safety and health practitioners need to embrace these differences to ensure that multicultural diversity has a positive effect on safety and health outcomes in the workplace. 

The careful design and delivery of training, and especially the use of innovative approaches, can help all workers to develop understanding and ownership of safety and health issues and foster a positive organisational culture.


Rob Cooling is director of health and safety, WSP/Parsons Brinckerhoff in the Middle East and a member of IOSH Council.

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