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In recent months, OSHA has stepped up its efforts to remind employers that employees must be trained in a language they understand. First, on April 14, 2010, Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis touched on the issue in an address to the National Action Summit for Latino Worker Health and Safety.

Then on April 28, Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of OSHA, issued a memorandum restating OSHA’s policy that safety information must be presented in a manner “the recipient is capable of understanding.” The memorandum goes on to say, “Employers are expected to realize that if they customarily need to communicate work instructions or other workplace information to employees at a certain vocabulary level or in language other than English, they will also need to provide safety and health training to employees in the same manner.”

The OSHA policy, as explained in the memorandum, is most concerned with employee comprehension.

Put another way, employers must take into consideration the abilities of its employees when providing training. Dr. Michaels’s memorandum states: “If the employee’s vocabulary is limited, the training must account for that limitation. By the same token, if employees are not literate, telling them to read training materials will not satisfy the employer’s training obligation.”

Dr. Michaels took up the topic again on June 14 in prepared remarks to attendees of the ASSE conference saying, “OSHA is particularly focusing on at-risk workers who speak little or no English.”

Both Secretary Solis and Assistant Secretary Michaels emphasized OSHA’s concern for Spanish-speaking employees who, according to OSHA’s website, account for a “disproportionate number of workplace fatalities.”

In his speech to ASSE, Michaels pointed out that “Immigrant Latino workers die on the job at a rate 50 percent higher than other workers.” He added, “To put it in painful, human terms: About 14 Latino workers die on the job every week while doing the hardest, most unhealthy, most dangerous jobs in America. This is an intolerable, national disgrace.”

As an exclamation point to its concerns, OSHA issued a directive to inspectors requiring them to check for compliance on this issue during site visits. Employers with non-English speaking employees would be wise to take seriously OSHA’s commitment to this issue. OSHA inspectors visiting a site will be looking to see that businesses are not only compliant via the letter of the law, but that their employees actually understand the workplace hazards and have been trained in a way that befits their abilities.

Secretary Solis, in her remarks to the National Action Summit, pointed out that these rules apply to every worker in America, including undocumented workers.

MSDS Management

A logical next question might be, “What about MSDSs?” If an employer is obligated to train employees in a language they understand, are they also obligated to provide material safety data sheets in a language they understand? The answer is no.

According to an OSHA Letter of Interpretation dated February 24, 1988, that elucidates Paragraph 29 CFR 1910.1200(f)(9) of the Hazard Communication Standard:

The employer shall ensure that labels or other forms of warning are legible, in English, prominently displayed on the container, or readily available in the work area throughout each work shift. Employers having employees who speak other languages may add the information in their language to the material presented, as long as the information is presented in English as well.

The Letter of Interpretation then adds in plainer language: “Thus, the employer may add information on the labels in a language other than English, but there is no requirement that they do so.”

Nevertheless, there are a number of good reasons for employers to provide as much safety information as possible, including MSDSs, in the language of their employees:

  1. It makes for a safer workplace
  2. It could simplify training and provide further evidence to OSHA of an employer’s intent to comply with the training standards for non-English speaking employees
  3. Many manufacturers provide MSDSs in multiple languages and adding them to your MSDS management system could be as easy as asking for it. [VelocityEHS’ MSDS database already has a substantial number of MSDSs in Spanish, French, German and other languages]
  4. It shifts the organizational thinking from the mindset of “what do I need to do to be compliant” to one of, “what do my employees need to be safe, how can we remove workplace hazards?”

On this last point, there was an interesting article yesterday by Fred Hosier in Safety/NewsAlert called Top 10 Dos and Don’ts for OSHA Inspections from 2 OSHA Inspectors. Tip number seven from the inspectors was especially insightful: “Think about hazards, not just standards, when you evaluate your workplace for safety. I look for hazards, not standard violations.”

Looking for hazards is also the main theme of OSHA’s new Illness and Injury Prevention Programs (I2P2) initiative starting to make its way through the new proposal process. You can learn more about I2P2 from our July 20, 2010 blog post.

If you have any questions about the topics discussed above, there is help. OSHA has a web-based assistance tool and while it is geared primarily for employers with a Spanish-speaking, there is a lot of good information and links to OSHA resources that would benefit any employer.

MSDSs Lost in Translation

Finally, we leave you with a little bit of fun. Celebrating the diversity MSDS database of over 3 million MSDSs, here is the equivalent of “Material Safety Data Sheet” in 23 different languages:

Spanish – Ficha de Datos de Seguridad

Spanish – Hoja de Datos de Seguridad



Chinese – 物质安全数据表

Chinese – 化 学 品 安 全 技 术 说

Chinese – 材料 安 全 数 据 单 张


German – Sicherheitsdatenblatt

Japanese – 安全 性 デ ー タ ー シ ー ト

Swedish  – Säkerhetsdatablad


Swedish – Varuinformationsblad



Thai – เอกสารข้อมูลความปลอดภัยของสารเคม

Arabic – ا مكافئى صحيفة سلامة إستخدام المنتج

Danish – Sikkerhedsdatablad

Polish – Karta Charakterystyki Substancji/Mieszanin



Portuguese – Ficha de Informações de Segurança de Produto Químico

Portuguese – Folha de Especificação de Segurança dos Materiais

Portuguese – Folha de Dados de Segurança de Material

Spanish – Hoja Técnica de Seguridad del Material

Norwegian – Identifikasjon Av Kjemikaliet Og Ansvarlig Firma

Norwegian – Sikkerhetsdatablad

Malay – Risalah Data Keselamatan Kimia

Malay – Risalah Data Keselamatan Bahan


Lithuanian – Saugos duomenų lapas


Slovenian – Varnostni list

Hungarian – Biztonsági Adatlapok