Is the Language Barrier a Health and Safety Issue on Site?

Is the Language Barrier a Health and Safety Issue on Site?

Construction insurance specialist Focus has warned of a rising level of employers’ liability claims that involve workers whose first language is not English.

The Health and Safety Executive had previously identified migrant workers as a group that may be particularly at risk of an accident in an unfamiliar setting. Now Focus has said this appears to be reflected in the increasing volume of foreign worker claims.

Focus says that it does not want to draw the wrong conclusions from the apparent rise in such claims. That rise may simply be due to an increasing proportion of foreign workers, upon whom parts of the construction industry have become highly dependent.

“The question is whether the rise does just reflect rising numbers or whether the HSE’s assertion that workers with limited English language skills are more vulnerable to UK workplace accidents is correct,” says John Finch, Focus’s Commercial Director.

“Insurers are naturally keen to know the answer to this as a step towards resolving any disparity in the safety of foreign workers compared to their colleagues with fluent English. Employers will have views, but actual experience may vary from firm to firm.

“What we do know is that HSE statistics show that a worker is as likely to have an accident in the first six months at work as during the rest of their working life. The reasons for that may help us to factor in the language issue in a meaningful way.”

HSE concludes that new workers may: not recognise some potential causes of danger; not understand rules for use of equipment that others may think obvious; be unfamiliar with site layout and changes to site hazards; cut corners or fail to heed warning signs and rules.

“Getting to grips with these issues is all the more difficult if the unfamiliarity, reticence and poor hazard recognition are compounded by a language barrier,” John Finch adds. “This may also affect experienced foreign workers, though probably to a lesser degree.

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