Communicating across different languages on-site

Australia is known for its rich cultural diversity, which means we have an array of different cultures and languages across the workforce. A culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) workplace is one where some workers’ preferred language is not English and so they may have limited knowledge of English. 

This includes:

  • workplaces where a particular language is spoken by a large proportion of the workforce, or
  • where other languages are spoken by just a few workers. 

It’s important for employers to be aware of the language preferences of their workforce so they can make sure that health and safety is discussed in ways that everyone understands.

Employers have a duty of care to provide and maintain a healthy and safe working environment. As part of this, employers are to provide workers with the necessary information, instruction, training or supervision to enable them to do their work in a way that is safe and without risks to health. Therefore it’s important you provide all workers with the information they need to do their job safely, including information in other languages where appropriate. This means that you need to be aware of any language and cultural barriers that may impact communication in your business, and take reasonable steps to address them. 

Starting out with proper consideration and consultation can save you time and money by helping to identify the range of languages spoken in the workplace as well as workers’ preferred forms of communication. 

We have put together some tips when it comes to effectively communicating with workers.

Know your workforce 

When you engage workers, whether they be employees or contractors, make sure you are aware of their language needs. 

Key things to consider:

  • Identify language needs
  • Establish processes/procedures for when and how you will be communicating (e.g. to have a full-time supervisor on-site, or translate documents available etc.)
  • Communicate for understanding
  • Use appropriate forms of communication
  • Use plain language and focus on keeping it simple
  • Get translations
  • Determine how you can check/ verify that workers understand your information and instructions
  • Provide language support, e.g. bilingual staff and/or interpreter services
  • Provide training specific to your work, e.g. induction, common workplace terms, procedures for high-risk works e.g. SWMS, any specific expectations.

Think about what is the most important information you need to get across. If someone only understood a small amount of what you are trying to say, what are the key things? 

Tips for communicating across languages

  • Communicate non-verbally by physically showing what needs to be in place, for example how to put on a mask. 
    • Google some pictures, or show a short youtube video. 
    • Point and use your body language
    • Do the task yourself once with the correct controls in place. 
    • Use appropriate safety signs, labels and symbols on-site (and where english text is found on these items consider adding translated text as well) 
    • Consider where you can use images, infographics and photos rather than complex text or writing when documenting task and job steps in documentation e.g. Safe Operating Procedures (SOPs)
  • Talk to supervisors who are able to communicate with non-English speaking workers and supervise the work to make sure it is being done how you expect. 
  • Try translation apps like Google Translate, they are not always perfect but can allow two-way basic communication when needed.
  • Consider having key information translated by a professional into the language of your workers.  
  • Where there is written communication, make it in plain language and as clear as possible. This means: 
    • using simple, everyday language 
    • using common workplace terms in a consistent manner 
    • using the same words in writing as you would when talking, but avoid abbreviations, acronyms, slang and jargon 
    • using short, complete sentences 
    • keeping documents short 
    • using headings and subheadings 
    • keeping the format clear and consistent 
    • focusing on one idea or issue at a time.
  • Keep toolbox talks practical with pictures, drawings, and pointing. Remember not to use acronyms or slang. Keep spoken English as simple as possible. 
  • Check that the information provided has been fully understood. This can be done by asking the employee to repeat a demonstration, to identify equipment used or to explain the meaning of safety signs.
  • Be respectful
  • Set expectations but get feedback and try to find easier ways for workers to speak up and have a say in health and safety. 
  • It can be incredibly rewarding and respectful to try and learn their language to communicate. Especially if you chose to work together. 

It’s best to use face-to-face discussion and demonstration where possible, as this is the most effective way to communicate across different languages and allows any misunderstandings to be identified and addressed immediately. Written material should be used to back up more direct communication, and should be in clear and simple language, with diagrams and examples to aid understanding.

Tailoring communication to the language needs and abilities of workers, and ensuring all workers understand the hazards and risks in their workplace, are important steps toward protecting their health and safety and keeping the workplace a healthy and safe work environment for all.

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