In a recent episode of “On the Safe Side,” guest speaker, Chandra Gioiellowas, made the assertion that, “The lack of a written HazCom program or a failure to follow the written HazCom program and a proliferation of unlabeled containers is really an indication of a larger problem that a lot of workplaces have, where hazard communication is devalued and ignored for the sake of the more immediate and more noticeable safety issues, and since no one has any real claim to it, no one really puts in the time to develop the expertise in it.” Even though she was discussing difficulties with compliance regarding HazCom in particular, it is safe to say that when the prevailing attitude surrounding an issue is that “no one wants to claim it” this only serves to exacerbate that problem. In the realm of EH&S, language barriers and the gap these cause in making sure workers are following established safety protocols can be a bear to deal with.
There are phrases within the safety industry (as with any industry) that may be English but have a specific meaning that not just any English speaker will understand. This dilemma is only aggravated when translating terms across languages. Therefore, it follows that problems will arise, even when things “seem really basic.” Problems within certain realms of safety (such as HazCom) are not immediately recognizable, as they do not always have such aggressive consequences as others, and this can subtly lead to noncompliance or worse (as these oversights, combined with minor differences in language, can have devastating effects).
But the real question is: Who is going to take responsibility to fix the root issue or make sure that one does not develop in the first place? Who will be the one to overcome language barriers when it comes to making sure work is performed safely? There is no “set in stone” answer. Every organization is different. Sometimes the EH&S Director/Manager will be able to contribute stipulations regarding language when hiring or onboarding employees. Meaning—sometimes there will be the opportunity to contract translators, sometimes there will be the ability to emphasize hiring only individuals who are fluent in specific languages, and sometimes there won’t be. And while it is possible for EH&S directors to develop themselves further to bear the responsibility of making sure all workers have a full understanding of safety programs, if that effort is not something within their normal job description, the desire or the resources may be lacking.
Chandra Gioiellowas suggested several solutions for overcoming this bear of a task, including utilizing:
- Pictograms or informational posters
- Commonly translated precautionary phrases
- Secondary, in-house systems for transcribing labels and other informational content
- New technology.
Whatever tool (or combination of resources) that a team chooses for training workers to follow their safety program, the most important factor to successful communication is to test that training. Delivering every effort into communicating in a way that individuals understand is only the first step. The follow-up is critical, i.e., confirming that understanding is there. Managers can accomplish this by encouraging an atmosphere where people feel they can ask for clarification when they do not understand something. Additionally, making oneself accessible by physically entering a work setting and personally engaging workers to confirm their understanding is a tried-and-true means of following up and creating accountability within the workplace. This can take the form of asking workers to show how they perform a task, requesting that they explain what the pictograms mean, or checking that the problems they work around every day are the same ones that the safety protocols are designed to cover. Communicating is never easy, even when only one language is involved. If leading safety is the goal, creating an atmosphere where there is nothing left to chance is part of the equation. There is no room for assumptions in hazard-filled situations.
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