A professional translation can save lives

Translations can mean the difference between life or death

If your work involves hazardous substances or environments, then it’s likely that you have rigorous health and safety procedures and documentation. You aspire to a safe, zero-accidents work environment for your employees and your customers. Fulfilling that vision means ensuring a practical company-wide safety culture that is actually experienced and lived every day, rather than simply a set of guidelines and regulations that no-one reads.

An obvious but an often overlooked, way to improve your safety record is to make sure your international employees all receive your high quality training and safety documentation in their native language. This applies to all your documentation, video and sound clips, warning signs and instructions.

Language competency affects risk

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) in the UK acknowledges this need on their site and advises that language competency should be included in our risk assessments. They recommend using professional interpreters and translators to avoid preventable accidents due to language misunderstandings. They also remind us of the importance of using clear, easy-to-understand language in briefings, for all workers, whether or they are non-native speakers.

In the US for example, between 2003-2005, 18% of work-related deaths were of foreign-born workers, although they only accounted for 15% of the work force by 2005. This is largely attributed to a lack of English skills and therefore lack of understanding of the potential hazards of their work place (see here for full study).

In the UK, construction union UCATT has called for the HSE to start to record the nationality of people who die at work, to monitor this pattern, after it was revealed that 5 of the 7 construction workers who died in London in 2015 were born overseas. HSE commented regarding the petition that “It is well recognised that foreign or migrant workers are potentially at greater risk in construction because of factors such as language skills, and inexperience or lack of understanding of UK Health and Safety standards”

foreign or migrant workers are potentially at greater risk in construction because of factors such as language skills, and inexperience or lack of understanding

Cultural awareness

Cultural issues also affect safety, and professional linguists or language consultants can advise where this is relevant. For example, a 2006 EU study found that miscommunication arising from cultural differences played a role in 70–80 % of all maritime accidents.

Certain foreign-born workers might feel shame in having had an accident, and neglect to report it, thereby increasing the likelihood of it happening to others. Likewise, workers from other countries might not report safety issues if they feel suspicious of authority, and at risk of losing their jobs. An HSE report on cultural influences on health and safety behaviour advised that, in addition to language, the barriers to H&S improvements included:

“… particular feelings of alienation and hostility that some groups hold towards officialdom and a related preference to minimise contact with regulatory officials”

What is it worth?

A common objection to using professional translators or interpreters is the perception that it might cost too much, or take too long, and thereby delay a project or cause it to run over budget. However, if we consider the financial and time impact of mistakes, accidents, sick leave, or simply working more slowly due to not understanding the correct safety procedures, the value becomes clear.

A translation needs doing only once, and can be used for multiple members of staff and for as long as that particular procedure is valid within your company. If all your workers clearly understand their roles, you will see your incident rate drop, productivity will increase, and your vision of a zero-accident workplace will become closer to reality.

Translations save lives

Professional, accurate translations and interpreting can mean the difference between life and death. We have all seen amusing examples of signs badly translated by well-meaning individuals or agencies but if the sign were on our own production line or construction site it would not be as funny. If the job role involves risk, then it is our responsibility to ensure our workers understand that risk and therefore understand how to behave accordingly.

Read more about our linguists’ and directors’s experience working with Health and Safety and translating in your sector.

Download our article on calculating the ROI of translations

Wondering how to justify investing in translations? Download our in-depth guide on how to calculate and measure the return on investment (ROI) of translations, including practical examples and exercises. Tailored for the manufacturing and health and safety environment.

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