Communication is essential in any industry, and especially so in environments with greater potential for harm. The worst injury I am likely to incur in the course of performing my job is probably a paper cut. But many of you deal with equipment that can be dangerous if proper care is not taken, and this needs to be communicated effectively to your employees.

How many of you speak a language besides your native tongue? I studied French for eight years; in fact, it was one of my minors in college. I took classes conducted entirely in French, read French novels, and wrote 10-page papers in French.

Yet I’m not sure I can claim to be bilingual. Since I live in northern Vermont, I encounter French Canadians from time to time, and I admit I have trouble answering simple questions like “Where is the funeral home?” Once, in high school, I went to Sherbrooke, Que., with some friends to go shopping. A friendly store clerk approached, and I informed her – in French – that we didn’t speak French. Not one of my shining moments of cleverness.

I know I didn’t practice speaking enough while I was taking classes, and now I don’t have much occasion to use my imperfect knowledge of a second language. I can muddle through giving someone directions. But when you have employees whose first language is not English, you can’t get away with that. If I can’t get my point across, the worst that happens is someone has to drive around aimlessly for a while (and possibly cursing me). If you can’t get your point across about all the different facets of the job, the consequences can be far more serious.

Everybody needs to be on the same page when it comes to safety and important job-related information. If you have Spanish-speaking employees, chances are that your hazy memories of high school Spanish are not going to cut it. And you may think you’re communicating clearly, because your employees might not want to tell you they don’t understand and risk making themselves look bad.

You should always make sure you’re communicating successfully, no matter whom you’re talking to – then you can avoid misunderstandings and confusion. But when two people who are not fluent in the same language are trying to communicate, it’s especially important to take steps to overcome the language barrier. Health, well-being and even lives may depend upon it. Turn to page 6 to learn more about ways you can improve communication. Healthy, happy employees who really understand their jobs will help improve your bottom line. And I think everybody’s interested in improving that, n’est-ce pas?

Stephanie Peake