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December 8, 2014

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Language barriers: protecting foreign workers

Five common health and safety translation fails

For those working in multiple territories and with migrant workers, effective, non-English, health and safety communication can literally be a matter of life and death. Let’s consider some of the pitfalls for health and safety practitioners working with foreign workers, and how to avoid them.

1: “We make sure our workers speak the language, so they’re OK.” A worker may have enough language to get hired, but that doesn’t guarantee having enough to understand safety instructions. Establish what languages are really spoken on site and ensure health and safety information is translated into these so it can be properly understood.

#2: “We’ve translated everything so we’re sorted”. Translated manuals and posters only work if you can read them. Many migrant workers’ reading skills can badly lag their spoken language. Don’t rely solely on written instruction.

#3: “That’s why we do face-to-face sessions – it’s spoken so it works.” Are you sure? Remember #1 – having enough local language to get hired doesn’t guarantee having enough to understand safety instructions. Just because a worker nods and signs an attendance sheet is not significant indication that they have fully understood the health and safety instructions. If you have the right employees in your workforce, the best approach is to “train the trainer”. That means to train competent employees who speak the required language to deliver training in that language.
If you can’t do that then interpreting training is the next best thing, delivering the message accurately and supporting Q&A. Do use a proper interpreter – “bilingual” amateurs make mistakes and/or omit content. Using web-conferencing can allow interpreted training to reach more than one audience too.
However, interpreting gets expensive with high workforce churn. A cheaper option is multilingual video – it’s a one-off cost and a way to reach multiple sites easily and consistently, but as it’s one-way it’s best for simpler risk environments. Video your training sessions then get a good language provider to voice-over in the languages, for either DVD or webstreaming distribution.

#4: “Acronyms make a great campaign focus” Do they? Acronyms can help but may not be the best thing to build a campaign around for foreign language use. Always check the acronym doesn’t have an unwanted meaning in the languages you’re dealing with, and remember clever acronym wordplay probably won’t translate.

#5: “We’re one company, we’re all trained the same” The surest way to turn off your audience is to insult them so take into account cultural differences and make sure your training materials and presentation are appropriate to the audience. Particularly watch this for web material – it’s easy to be “favourited” or tweeted for all the wrong reasons!

Sleep and Fatigue: Director’s Briefing

Fatigue is common amongst the population, but particularly among those working abnormal hours, and can arise from excessive working time or poorly designed shift patterns. It is also related to workload, in that workers are more easily fatigued if their work is machine-paced, complex or monotonous.

This free director’s briefing contains:

  • Key points;
  • Recommendations for employers;
  • Case law;
  • Legal duties.
Barbour EHS

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Peter Rimmer
Peter Rimmer
6 years ago

Almost twenty years ago we started to produce the Napo series of short animation films to overcome cultural, linguistic and national boundaries. They are now viewed in 177 countries around the world and popular on every continent. There is no dialogue, and therefore no need to translate or interpret the content. It’s visual media at its best. Napo is available on the website at http://www.napofilm.net
Napo films can be part of your communications. They are not a solution in their own right but a very useful component in the communications mix.

Paul
Paul
6 years ago

South Africa solved this problem over 40 years ago. It was made a requirement on its mines that everybody spoke one language.

People may like to use pictures, but these are of no use when hazards occur.

How do you warn a worker of a hazard when you are behind them. Its simple shout.

In the UK, that language should be English, its understood by the majority. Those who come to work here must be competent in it. Or NO WORK.

Stephen
Stephen
6 years ago
Reply to  Paul

Or better yet they should all be proficient in all aspects of safety and safety legislation – Get real! As was pointed out clearly in the article even people who speak English may have gaps in their understanding. Especially if the spoken instructions are given in the presence of background noise. (As in the old army joke about ‘send three and fourpence we’re going to a dance’). The best way to establish if the message has been understood is to get feedback from the workers, perhaps rather than getting them to sign a name to say that they have understood,… Read more »

Andy Campion
Andy Campion
6 years ago

We find that it helps if you also put pictograms on your signs and add photographs to method statement or Safe System of Work of the relevant issue with a tick or cross. It may not be sophisticated but it works. The main issue is how far can you go to satisfy yourself you have got the message over and also how far should you consider the knowledge and understanding of the recipient. How far should you go?

Paul
Paul
6 years ago
Reply to  Andy Campion

Proficiency is Health and Safety legislation is pointless, if you can not understand what your co-workers are saying.

If a Spanish worker shouted “parar” would you know what to do ?

Nigel Dupree
Nigel Dupree
6 years ago

Not just those with English as a second language as 30% of UK population are Functionally Illiterate and at risk of not being able to fully participate in or understand text based material without including experiential training involving seeing, hearing and doing as part of the vocational learning mix !!!!

Phil Murphy
Phil Murphy
6 years ago

Whilst working in Germany for the American military, all foreign nationals (including us Brits and Germans) whom must speak English to a decent level in order to understand basic instruction, this was for your and each others safety and to ensure the success of the mission. If I wanted to work for a German company; it was made clear that I had to speak and understand German to a decent level in order to understand basic instruction including matters relating to health and safety. All signage in Germany is in German if you can’t read it, simple learn German. Why… Read more »

Joe McKay
Joe McKay
6 years ago

I find it amazing that Paul advocates that all workers should learn to speak English “no English – no work” and yet when it comes to a simple case of reading an English reply to his nonsense, he hasn’t got the ability to read and understand or the ability to respond coherently to Stephens reply! As a lot of non-English speaking operatives end up in the services industry where reading simple instructions is paramount, having the ability to read either words or pictograms is most important. Some English as a foreign language speakers are embarrassed to reveal their inability to… Read more »