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Health & Safety: Be careful how acronyms are used among workers new to country

February 27, 2023  By CCOHS

Hey, Ibrahim, right? You’re new here. Welcome! I’m Eugene.”

Ibrahim smiles and extends a hand to greet his new co-worker, who holds up his fist for a bump instead.

“Nice to meet you, Eugene,” Ibrahim says, bumping Eugene’s fist tentatively.

“I’ve been assigned to show you the ropes around here,” Eugene says.


“The ropes?” Ibrahim says, looking around.

“Ah, I’m sorry. It’s just an expression. I’m going to help you get familiar with the shop and your role.”


Ibrahim smiles, relaxing a little. The pair walk through the shop and review the tools and equipment they’ll need at their job site that day. 

“Before you get started you have to be trained up on everything from PPE, MMH, to WHMIS and everything else in between!”

As Ibrahim furrows his brow, wondering if he should know what those acronyms mean, another worker approaches with a friendly smile. “Hey Eugene, is that the new OP?”

Organizations and industries have historically used acronyms and expressions to make communication more efficient, as well as to foster camaraderie among workers over a shared language. But as workplaces become more diverse and workforce demographics change, acronyms and expressions can put up an unnecessary language barrier for workers who are new to the country or not yet accustomed to the jargon in their workplace.

Here are a few reasons why spelling terms out and keeping acronyms to a minimum can contribute to a safer workplace.

New workers may already be feeling under pressure
The first few weeks of a new job can be stressful enough for workers who are in a probationary period and trying to learn processes and protocols. Layering on an extensive glossary of terms for them to learn can create an unnecessary layer of stress that could lead to the worker feeling pressure to pretend they understand something they don’t. This disconnect poses a potential safety risk to both the new worker and his colleagues.

Though it may not be possible to eliminate jargon and acronyms completely from your workplace, you can ensure that all new workers have thorough training on any terms or acronyms they need to know to do their job safely. Trainers should make sure that readability levels and language choices of both the materials and instruction suit the learners. Let them know that it’s OK to ask questions about terms they don’t understand and consider pairing new workers with a more experienced partner who can help them learn all the nuances of the workplace, including language.

If your workplace lingo makes people feel like insiders, it also creates outsiders
Being knowledgeable in industry speak (language specific to an industry) or jargon can be a point of pride for some workers, because just like any other language, it takes time and expertise to master. But while being part of an exclusive club can feel good for those inside it, it doesn’t feel great for those who are excluded. Many workers and tradespersons who come from other countries have the same level of experience and qualifications as their colleagues, but the terminology is different or doesn’t translate easily.

Employers can facilitate a psychologically safer workplace and an easier transition for new workers by minimizing the use of acronyms and jargon, starting from the top of the organization. When leaders opt not to use them in external communications, presentations and marketing, it can lead to a ripple effect with managers, supervisors and other workers, helping to make communication more accessible for everyone.

Get in the habit of using plain language throughout your internal communications, such as emails, notices, and posters. If the default assumption becomes that workers aren’t familiar with the jargon, its use will diminish over time.

Less acronyms and jargon equal more diversity of thought
Having a more diverse workforce has been shown to have many benefits, such as lower turnover, higher productivity, and more innovation. A workplace that prioritizes keeping its language accessible is one in which workers feel comfortable offering ideas and improved ways of doing things.

In most cases, acronyms and jargon are unnecessary. So why not try eliminating them altogether and see how it affects your workplace?

Back at the shop, Eugene sees Ibrahim’s anxious expression.

“Oh geez, Ibrahim, I’m sorry,” he offers. “Am I coming at you too fast with the lingo?”

“Oh, um, it’s not so bad,” Ibrahim says. “But I don’t know what you mean by PPE, MMH or WHMIS.”

Eugene smiles. “We are trying to be clearer in our language. Thanks for reminding me that I need to work on it! There are a few terms you do need to be familiar with – let’s go over them together.”

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) promotes the total well being of workers in Canada by providing information, training, education, systems and solutions that support health and safety programs and injury and illness prevention.

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