Communication of risky activities in the workplace: Understanding the importance of translators in occupational hygiene.

Communication of risky activities in the workplace: Understanding the importance of translators in occupational hygiene.

Communication of risky activities in the workplace: Understanding the importance of translators in occupational hygiene.

Occupational Hygienists enter various industries with employees who possess different skills. The highly skilled employee is often proficient in the language of instruction (English in the South African context) while many low-skilled workers are not.

Language shapeseverything we do, especially in the workplace. 

Any linguistic restriction that causes misunderstanding or restricts knowledge is considered a language barrier. National or cultural differences can be a barrier, but it might also be specialised knowledge or speech problems.

Any conversation, email, report, or conference will be ineffective if you cannot understand what someone is saying. You won’t be able to effectively implement ideas as a team if there isn’t a clear understanding of what needs to be done or how to do it.

The extent to which people are literate affects how effectively they communicate. 

East Asian countries like Japan and Korea prefer their primary language to English and seek formal education in those languages. As a result, they only have restricted exposure to the English language.

Similarly, South Africa aims to equip its people with literacy by teaching in native languages. This results in many working-class people who have limited command of the English language.

One of the sites I visited with a colleague required that we undergo an induction. A laptop was placed in front of us, and a video induction was played. Another contractor was brought into the room to participate in the induction process. At the end of the video, we had to write a test based on the information provided in the video.

We were handed papers to fill in various kinds of information as well as to answer questions.

The third contractor struggled to answer these questions and had to have a translator explain to them what to answer and how. This raised the question, how much of this induction video did this person understand and retain? The video was presented in English, with no subtitles.

This contractor likely retained virtually no information other than prohibition signs that he’d seen on previous jobs.

Literature shows that minimum-wage Nepali immigrants working in the Middle East and Malaysia were more prone to injuries and risky behaviours, with the language barrier that exists between them and their employers being one of the main reasons.

In technical reporting, the aim is to communicate complex ideas in a language that is easily digestible. We employ the use of some jargon but also aim to keep the idea palatable for those who are not well-versed in the language of occupational hygiene. On the odd occasion, seasoned safety professionals find themselves lost in the in-depth explanations of the problems at hand, often requiring guidance to understand reports.

Now, we talk about the importance of healthy practices in the workplace, yet we seldom talk about how we communicate these practices to people who don’t speak the language of instruction.

A solution that the sugar industry established was the creation of “Fanakalo” which took a combination of locally spoken languages and merged them into one. This is still used as a medium of communication in many industries but is mostly associated with mining. There’s even a Fanakalo dictionary. 

What solutions exist to this language issue?  

Simply develop material in the language that is most understood by the workforce in a particular area. Translate the OH&S training material into the target audience’s language, making use of PowerPoint presentations and videos with voiceovers and subtitles, for better delivery. Translators can be found at local education facilities.  

Encourage staff to learn a local language to better support the transfer of information.

Let’s make safety inclusive.