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Safety 4: migrant workers

Course: Health and Safety | Last Updates: 7th October 2015

The deaths of 23 Chinese cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay in 2004 highlighted the risks to the health and safety of migrant workers in agriculture and those involved with the processing and packing of agricultural produce.

There are a number of reasons why the risks for foreign workers are often higher than those for UK nationals.

  • The working environment and health and safety culture in the UK may be different from that in their country of origin.
  • They may have a more limited ability to communicate effectively with other workers and supervisors, particularly in understanding risks and how to avoid them.
  • They may have limited access to suitable health and safety training, sometimes coupled with a lack of experience of the industry in which they’re working while in this country.
  • Employers have sometimes failed to check on their work skills and language skills.
  • They often don’t know their health and safety rights and how to raise them, or how to get help.

In health and safety terms, migrant workers have the same rights and responsibilities as every other worker. General risk-assessment issues should be dealt with in the same way as for other workers.

For help on producing risk assessments visit the self-assessment section of HSE’s agriculture web pages.

The main issue for migrant workers compared with others is that of language and communication.


Communicating necessary health and safety information and training where there is no common language presents challenges to employers. Some have responded by developing other ways of conveying information using visual aids, which can overcome many of the limitations stemming from a lack of English or poor English language skills.

The greater the range of methods used to communicate, the more successful they are likely to be.

HSE supp - language problems

HSE research

HSE research revealed that only half of the migrant workers interviewed had fluent or good English language skills. Many workers said their inability to speak English was the reason why they take work below their qualification or skill levels.

Many admitted to pretending to understand English for fear of not getting work or of losing their jobs if their lack of English became known. This has serious implications, particularly in relation to health and safety training.


Although employers interviewed as part of the research said knowledge of English was not an essential prerequisite for work, lack of English presented them with challenges, particularly in relation to supervising migrant workers. Employers generally preferred super­vision to be in English, except where employers and employees shared a common language.

Interpretation, other than during the initial stages of employment, was also considered a problem, because the employer did not know if instructions were being translated correctly. Using interpreters was often considered impracticable, as it was not easy to move workers to different jobs if their translators did not then accompany them.

Advice for employers

  • Employers must make sure all employees, whatever their competence in English, receive health and safety information, instruction and training they can understand.
  • Translated videos/DVDs/CD-Roms, translation/interpretation by a suitably qualified person, internationally-understood signs or other visual media can all be used effectively.
  • It is important to check that any information, instruction or training has been understood. This can be done by observation and conventional supervision.

Consider English language lessons for workers, tailored to the demands of the workplace, and basic lessons or phrase cards in the language of the non-English-speaking workforce where supervisors cannot speak their language.

Inspectors have access to interpretation and translation services for field visits and investigations, and callers to HSE’s confidential helpline can ask for advice in a number of foreign languages.

There will be few situations where health and safety considerations alone justify not employing migrants with poor or no English. But where workers are required to communicate with third parties to ensure health and safety, such as when operating farm railway crossings, careful assessment and management by employers and, initially at least, probably close super­vision are required.

Migrants migrant workers

In general, it is unlikely that employers will need to provide language training to comply with their duties under health and safety law. But there may be circumstances where an employer concludes it is necessary to do this to comply with the law. In such cases, the employer can insist that all those employees affected attend, but he/she must bear the costs, and it must be provided in the employer’s time.

Employees who do not speak English may need to understand simple key words and phrases relating to health and safety that others around them might use – obvious examples are “Fire!” and “Stop!”.

If any more in-depth language training is required, it might be more appropriate for supervisors and managers to learn the relevant languages. Employers could ask an employee who speaks better English to act as an interpreter (as long as they can do this to a reasonable standard), or seek outside help.

Some employment agencies employ experienced foreign language speakers who can help smooth the transition when agency-supplied migrant workers are first taken on. Employers can club together to use a professional interpreter, eg, for training sessions. Local Citizens’ Advice Bureaux may have contacts with migrant worker communities who could also help.

Corgette picking migrant workers migrants

Employers could provide written information in a relevant language (as long as they know that the employees can read the language), and they should use a competent translator familiar with the technical terms used. These matters should be taken into account in the risk assessments of the employing business before they take on migrant workers.

We have little or no evidence that a lack of English has contributed directly to injury and ill health among non-English-speaking workers. But, for some workers, a lack of English language skills may mean they are at increased risk, and employers need to ensure they have provided clear information and training.

HSE migrant workers website

This new website provides essential information, guidance and advice on workplace health and safety for workers from overseas and their employers. Some parts of the site are available in several languages. Find out more at the HSE website.

It has been developed to explain how health and safety law protects those working here from overseas. It also provides guidance on the roles and responsibilities of employers and workers under British health and safety law.

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