How Language Learning Translates to Food Safety

November 22, 2017

As one of the largest employing industries in the U.S., the restaurant industry currently provides jobs for 14.7 million people across the country, and the need for restaurant workers shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. In fact, analysts predict an additional 1.6 million jobs will be created over the next decade.

Still, this workforce is headed for a significant shift. Although the restaurant industry already has a higher concentration of foreign-born workers than any other sector in the country (more than 23 percent of individuals employed at restaurants are foreign-born, versus 18.5 percent for the overall economy, according to QSR Magazine), that number will continue to grow astronomically, as many of these new jobs will be filled by foreign-born employees and their immigrant children. The skills gap that currently exists for many of these workers who are not proficient in English will also grow, especially in cities such as Miami and Orlando, which are expected to receive an influx of workers coming from the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico looking to build new lives and find work following the aftermath of recent hurricanes. Now, more than ever, it is critical that the industry take action to give its workforce the tools and resources it needs to communicate effectively.

Dominating nearly every part of retail food service, foreign-born workers hold jobs as cooks, waiters, bussers, dishwashers, kitchen staff, food prep staff, frontline food workers, service and maintenance workers, and hosts. In fact, the National Restaurant Association found that “a full 43 percent of restaurant chefs are foreign-born.”

While it is undeniable that these workers are a vital part of the food service industry, it cannot be ignored that many of them possess limited proficiency in English, referred to as LEP, a staggering factor that can negatively impact profits of food service restaurants and the professional confidence of the employee. Lacking basic English communication skills, LEP workers often unknowingly put themselves, fellow food service workers, and customers at risk.

For example, a Massachusetts family is suing Panera Bread after their 6-year-old daughter suffered a violent reaction and had to be hospitalized after eating a grilled cheese sandwich containing peanut butter—despite warnings from the parents about their child’s peanut allergy when they had placed the order. According to the Boston Globe, the manager of the Panera Bread franchise outlet “blamed the incident on a ‘language’ issue…conceivably [by] an employee with limited English.” Less than one month later, a different family experienced a similar incident at another Panera Bread location.

These incidents show firsthand how detrimental miscommunication within the food service industry can be, even leading to potentially life-threatening mishaps. While usual tactics such as food allergentraining are often a part of food safety training, what’s intended to be a clear lesson on handling food allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities isn’t so clear when it gets lost in translation. The truth is that instances similar to the ones that occurred at Panera Bread are highly likely to occur time and time again when language training is left out of the equation.

The good news is that employers can take proactive action to help prevent these mistakes and help their teams grow and develop at the same time.

An Essential Element

Implementing a language training program has become a common practice with many food service businesses and should be implemented as an integral part of food safety training. Treating it as an important building block within the foundation is critical, because without it, communication can have crippling effects.

As a complex industry made up of many moving parts, language barriers pose a large safety problem for food service managers and owners in particular, including the following.

High risk of litigation. LEP workers with an inadequate grasp of safety or food prep protocols open restaurants and food service outlets to a higher incidence of lawsuits. A Chili’s Grill & Bar, Charlotte, N.C., was cited by the county health department when an employee was unable to explain proper healthy policy, while a man brought a suit against an Oregon steakhouse after going into anaphylactic shock after his food order was prepared incorrectly.

Jeopardizing other employees. LEP workers who don’t have a clear comprehension of evolving safety guidelines, store policies, and job protocols put fellow employees at a higher risk for injury.

Increased safety risk to themselves. Trends show a disturbing rise in problems for LEP workers. A 2016 report from the Food Chain Workers Alliance and Solidarity Research Cooperative found that “non-fatal rates of injury and illness in food production jumped from 4.6 cases per hundred workers in 2010 to 5.5 in 2014.”

Increased workplace fatality rate. SafetySkills, a safety training company, found that “Hispanic and Latino workers have the highest workplace fatality rate of any group, nearly 50 percent higher than the overall rate…largely attributed to language barriers…”

Major impediment to food safety. One report from Journal of Extension estimates that “59 percent of the foodborne illnesses originate from retail food service establishments.” LEP workers only compound the problem.

Solo Not the Solution

Since LEP workers play such an integral role within food service, each of the consequences outlined above can greatly jeopardize the productivity and profitability of the industry. It’s crucial for managers and operators to come to the table with proactive solutions before these risks become a reality and threaten the future of the establishment. Many LEP workers want to improve their language skills, and as many as 31 percent have noted the desire to participate in learning opportunities but have not been able to according to the National Skills Coalition, and learning on their own tends to be a challenge due to obstacles they face. This is where managers and operators need to come in and offer language training for their employees to solve the existing skills gap and better protect their customers, workers, and overall business.

Common obstacles that LEP workers face with language training on their own include the following.

Lack of financial resources. The unpredictability of income earned by LEP workers in the food service sector and scant monetary assets create a major impediment. An analysis by the National Skills Coalition found that a whopping 84 percent of service sector workers enrolled in formal degree or certificate programs received no financial support from their employers.

Lack of time. LEP workers are squeezed for time, perhaps more than other classes of workers. Child care and family responsibilities consume a big chunk of whatever “free” time workers have, according to the National Skills Coalition.

Inconveniently scheduled programs. The time and location of adult education classes were often incompatible with the work schedules of LEP workers, according to a Brookings Institution report.

Long waiting lists. Adult education classes historically have had lengthy waiting lists for registration, but the situation seems to have gotten worse. For example, Los Angeles had a waiting list of 16,000 people for adult education classes in 2016, “especially the English as a Second Language programs.”

A Good Investment

In order for LEP workers to improve their English language skills most effectively, their employers must play a role. However, not only will employers be enhancing the abilities of their staff by implementing onsite language learning, they’ll also be ensuring the future success of their establishments.

By investing in language training programs for employees, managers, and operators would gain substantial advantages across their businesses and beyond, including the following.

Skillful customer assistance. According to Food Chain Workers Alliance, as “82 percent of food chain workers are in frontline positions,” LEP workers with a competent command of English can provide better customer service and ensure a higher rate of returning customers.

Lower risk of accidents. As a report in the Journal of Extension makes clear: “…it is expected that food handling behaviors will improve due to improved knowledge and result in safe food handling practices, thus reducing the incidence of foodborne illness.”

Customized training. Managers will be in charge of designing their own onsite language training program, determining the kind of content—such as job-specific language comprehension—that they want their LEP workers to learn.

Thanks to technology, there are many digital language learning programs available for businesses to help meet their training needs and that allow their employees to learn at home or on the go. Panda Restaurant Group, for example, offers Rosetta Stone’s Catalyst program as an employee benefit to its workers, many of which are English Language Learners. The company has seen a tremendous interest from its workforce, with 275 workers signing up to take on the courses in an attempt to improve their English skills. As a result, Alvin Tang, coordinator of the learning and development department at Panda Restaurant Group, told that he saw those same employees begin “to provide better customer service, more natural casual customer interactions, and safer exchanges with co-workers.”

Tang put it best, “there are so many barriers in careers as is. We don’t believe language should be one of them.” The company has also seen the added benefit of an increase of nearly 20 percent in employee retention at the locations with the highest usage of the Rosetta Stone language program. Tang can’t directly tie this back to the language program but he believes providing employees with the tool “helped them feel a sense of belonging,” which encouraged them to stay at the company.

As with any new initiative, comprehensive language training requires an upfront commitment of time and money on the part of the food service organization. There’s no question that it will take time for workers to sharpen their language skills and additional funds to set up the program, but what you put in, you get out. If food service owners and managers provide their employees with the specific tools they need to succeed, there’s a much higher chance they’ll do just that.

Don’t overlook a language strategy when looking at your overall business plans. It will likely save you in the long run.

Brotherson is senior director, enterprise sales, for Rosetta Stone. Reach him at