Communicating across languages on-site

New Zealand is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world, which means we have an array of different cultures and languages across the workforce. This can sometimes create a challenging environment when it comes to communicating key information to all workers equally. 

As a business, you have a general responsibility to make your workplace safe. As part of this, you are responsible for providing 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. 

It’s important for businesses to be aware of the language preferences of their workforce so they can make sure that health and safety is discussed in a way that everyone understands. Workers will be trying to cope with a lot of information; the task at hand, the quality expectations, health and safety etc, so when communicating with workers where English isn’t their first language it is a great time to remember, to keep safety simple.

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. 

Your PCBU Duties

Worker engagement, participation, and representation is a key part of the Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA) in New Zealand.

The HSWA requires engagement in certain circumstances, such as when identifying hazards and assessing risks to work health and safety arising from the work carried out by the PCBU.

As the Main Contractor who has engaged workers with English as a second language, you need to consider the following as your responsibility:


This is how a PCBU involves workers in health and safety matters and decisions in the workplace. A PCBU that has good engagement with workers will:

  • share information and decisions in a timely way
  • give workers reasonable opportunities to share their views, raise work health or safety issues, and contribute to decision-making processes
  • consider the views of workers.


This is one way for workers to raise health and safety concerns, suggest ways to improve health and safety, and make decisions that affect work health and safety. A PCBU that has good worker participation will:

  • give people opportunities to raise issues or suggestions in a timely way
  • have workers who know how to participate, and use opportunities to do so
  • have decision makers who consider and respond to workers’ issues or suggestions.

Worker representation

This involves workers electing one or more person/s as their Health and Safety Representative (HSR) to represent them on health and safety matters. The HSR is entitled to specialist training and becomes the workers’ advocate at that workplace. The HSR does not have to be a member of a union.

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:

  • How are you going to consult
  • Set out a budget and procedures for communicating (e.g. to have a full-time supervisor on-site, or translate documents etc.)
  • Communicate for understanding
  • Use appropriate forms of communication
  • Use plain language
  • Get translations
  • Use standard picture safety signs
  • Check workers understand your 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. Task Analysis, and 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. 
    • Make simple Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s) with pictures for workers to review. 
  • Talk to supervisors who can communicate with non-English speaking workers and supervise the work to ensure 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.  
  • 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, identify the equipment used, or 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 safety. 
  • It can be incredibly rewarding and respectful to try and learn their language to communicate. Especially if you chose to work together.  
  • Workers from other countries may need to be informed of their legal health and safety requirements in New Zealand.  

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.

Of course, reach out to HazardCo and speak to one of our Health and Safety experts if you have any questions or need more support on ways to communicate across different languages on-site. HazardCo members get 24/7 incident support, and Health and Safety advice from our Advisory team. You can contact us on 0800 555 339 or email