Language is Power

“Lang se pouvwa, lavi ak enstriman kilti , enstriman dominasyon ak liberasyon,”Angela Carter

“El lenguaje es poder, vida y el instrumento de la cultura; el instrumento del dominio y de la liberación,” –Angela Carter

 “Language is power, life and the instrument of culture—the instrument of domination and liberation,” –Angela Carter

What implications does language access have for health education? How can speaking a language other than English affect safety in the workplace? For people working with farmworker communities, we ask ourselves these questions almost subconsciously, so accustomed to planning a Spanish-speakers only pesticide safety training, or finding English classes for new clients in order to help them compete in an English-dominated job market.  Spanish, while spoken by at least 75% of farmworkers, and English (21% of farmworkers) are not the only languages represented in the increasingly diverse agricultural communities all around the country.

According to AFOP Health & Safety Programs’ training statistics, farmworkers speaking Burmese and Russian (in Virginia), Chinese (Maryland), Vietnamese (Iowa), and Navajo (New Mexico) received heat stress training through our Susan Harwood Training Grant with OSHA last year. Health and safety trainers in many states, including Florida and Maryland, worked with Haitian Creole speakers. Others have given trainings interpreted in Mexican indigenous languages like Mixteco and Mam—a Mayan language spoken by half a million people. While the numbers of farmworkers representing these languages are a minority, it is important to consider how to continue to effectively reach out to people who communicate in the more than 50 different languages reported in the fields in order to convey vital health and safety information.

Language barriers can make work in agriculture even more hazardous than it already is for the millions of people who labor in farms, fields, nurseries, and packing houses.

  • Chemical labels and safety fact sheets are most often English-only, including those of pesticides
  • Warnings signs lose effectiveness if they are only in English, if the workers speak a non-written language, or if they have extremely limited literacy
  • The dominant view among farmworkers is it is solely the boss’s responsibility to keep workers safe
  • Rhythm of farm work makes it difficult to track minority populations who migrate or who start farm work because of their placement in different areas of the country as refugees. Also, according to researchers Arcury, Estrada and Quandt in North Carolina, “new hires must be trained when the work is most intense and little time is available for training,” leaving less time to accommodate for language differences.

To accommodate for these hazards, both OSHA and the EPA have created laws requiring training in languages or given in a manner employees understand. Only the Worker Protection Standard (WPS) for pesticide safety requires signage to be bilingual in English and Spanish, with the option of more written languages left up to employers who recognize a need.

Inextricably tied to language is culture—the instrument of culture and, with it, the implication of control over information, as Angela Carter describes in the quote above. One way AFOP health and safety trainers are breaking down language barriers is by recognizing the need for cultural understanding in the farmworker community. Christina Manuelito from HELP-New Mexico in Gallup writes:

“We service farmworkers that speak Zuni, Navajo, and the Keres languages of the Acoma and Laguna pueblo people(s). [When we have used interpreters for heat stress training,] the use of an interpreter for the training was only positive. They made the training fun by using relevant stories. The participants giggled as they understood. The older people have labored outdoors in extreme weather situations, so they could relate.”

She reminds us, “Language barriers can cause confusion or misinterpretation of the message. Making the message relatable in different situations keeps clients interested.”

In a recent case, language barriers at the work place paired with lack of intercultural understanding had a disastrous outcome. The tragic events in a Virginia lumber yard remind us how unacknowledged cultural and language differences can be a barrier to worker communication, promoting suspicion and misunderstanding among a linguistically diverse workforce.  The man shot several of his coworkers and then turned the gun on himself; a letter was found describing his frustrations with Spanish-speaking colleagues.  It is difficult to know for sure how these deaths could have been avoided, but employers who promote language and cultural sensitivity between English and Spanish speakers as a way to increase worker communication could find increased productivity and comradery among employees laboring in agriculture.

Carrie Smith, from Partners in Community/New England Farmworkers Council describes the needs she sees in the agricultural community in her region of the states for language access:

“Speakers of other languages have the opportunity to attend free English classes through many non-profit organizations in Manchester and surrounding towns, but, unfortunately, farm workers do not get the ‘farm vocabulary’ in these classes.  Most of our farmworkers learn by experience and through [coworkers] about safety and health.  If local non-profits, who teach English, were provided with ‘farm vocabulary’ they could aid in the protection of farmworkers.  Providing ‘danger’ or other ‘warning signs’ in languages other than English and Spanish for farms could help protect and keep farmworkers safe.  Our area is populated by several different types of minority languages including, but not limited to: Bhutanese, African [languages] (several different dialects), Asian [languages], and languages spoken in Iraq.  It would be good to survey farms to get the most accurate information for what languages are spoken on these farms.  Farm owners should be provided with a list of non-profits and other organizations in their areas, which offer free English to speakers of other languages.  This should be posted in a common area for the farmworkers.”

Carrie concludes that, “as a whole, more effort should be made to provide services for minorities, but especially to those who have careers that can have dangerous outcomes if education or training is provided inadequately.”

Languages, while often seen as barriers in the aforementioned ways to a healthy workplace, should not prevent workers in the United States from receiving the information they need. I am sure all of AFOP’s health and safety trainers can remember the look on the face of at least one of their trainees when she or he finally understood a difficult concept in her/his own language, taken in through the lens of her/his own experience.  For speakers of languages other than Spanish and English in farmworker communities, this moment may happen infrequently. Let’s do our best to ensure all workers have this opportunity.

Resources from the EPA:

Pesticide materials in different languages

Workbooks for English for Speakers of other Languages (ESL) farm safety

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