An employer has recently been in the headlines after its Eastern European staff were instructed to speak only English when addressing their work colleagues during working hours. Although they were allowed to speak their native language during breaks, the employees felt that this was discriminatory. The reasoning behind this ruling was to ensure health and safety rules were followed by all staff.
We do not think this particular situation has been tested at tribunal yet; arguments to date have centred on how to overcome language barriers when delivering health and safety training. To defend such a claim, the employer would need to be able to show that such provision, criterion or practice, which discriminates indirectly against non-native English speakers, can be objectively justified.
Depending on specific circumstances, it may be possible to use health and safety law to your advantage for example, the Health & Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 requires employers to take reasonable steps to provide and maintain a safe system of work. In practice, this will vary depending on the workplace and the composition of its workforce. But it is these factors that will determine whether or not an English-only requirement on health and safety grounds is acceptable.
An employer can also take into account the exact number of languages that are spoken by its employees. The greater the number, the stronger the case for insisting that English is the only language spoken while the employees are actually working; it is simply not viable to have several languages spoken, particularly where day-to-day instructions are given in English. This reasoning will also apply to low-risk environments.
The NAMB has a number of Health & Safety ’a guide for workers’ leaflets in most languages. Members can obtain any of these sheets by calling 01920 468061.