Technical Translations and Worker Health and Safety

safety technical translation

Technical Translations and Worker Health and Safety

We’ve all laughed at translation errors before and their funny side-effects but have you ever considered that bad translations can harm or even kill people? No longer a laughing matter is it? In fact, within some industries getting translations right is a matter of life or death.

It might be slightly inconvenient when you cannot understand what your employer is telling you when you are in a white collar job, but in some cases, a lack of understanding of the company language can be outright dangerous. Last year, at the Tyson food plant in Arkansas (USA), almost 200 people fell ill after a worker poured bleach in a barrel filled with chemicals, creating a chlorine gas leak.

In light of a report published a few days ago, the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) is advising industries in America to adapt their safety training to the language skills of their workers. The accident in Arkansas occurred because a Spanish-speaking worker poured sodium hypochlorite in a drum that still contained a little bit of an acidic antimicrobial agent. When these two components came into contact, chlorine gas was formed. The employee was interrogated later and told the investigators that he knew the mixture was dangerous, but that he did not know what was in the barrel because he couldn’t read the label.

The CDC interviewed 545 of the 600 workers of the plant. It was discovered that 195 of them had to seek medical help after the accident. 152 of these were actually hospitalized. In a previous study, the Centre had discovered that Hispanics are killed more often in work-related accidents than other workers. Measurements should be taken to ensure Spanish-speaking employees understand the hazards that are involved in their line of working: ‘All communication, training, and signage in the workplace should be easy-to-read and provided in languages understood by workers.’

Tyson Foods stated that there have been such implementations since the middle of 2011. Company spokesman Gary Mickelson: “We’ve put additional controls in place to limit access to chemicals in the plant and we’ve continued to emphasize training for those authorized to handle such chemicals.” Mickelson also refutes that the employee who caused the accident didn’t speak English. According to him, the employee’s primary language was English and had received the proper training, but simply failed to look at the label of the barrel.

However, this might not have been completely true, as the CDC found out that even though the native language of more than two-thirds of the plant’s workers is Spanish and an additional twelve per cent speak Marshallese, information about material safety in the plant is only stated in English. The Centre has suggested that in all companies, ‘employers should actively engage workers in hands-on training.’ In addition, it stresses the importance of using symbols and simplified English to provide information about chemical hazards.

Do you look after Health & Safety at your company? Have you considered translation of vital documents and signage to ensure the safety of workers? Contact us if you would like some more information on how we can help with technical translations.

by Elise Kuip

Katia Reed
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