Are your health and safety comms understandable across multiple languages?

Andrew Smith and Bryan Turner say a better approach is embracing visual communication.

By Andrew Smith, CEO and founder Jincom, and Bryan Turner, Partner, SPEAR Capital.

Organisations in all industries face increasingly stringent health and safety regulations. An important part of adhering to those regulations is communicating them with all employees.

However, much international travel may have been curtailed over the course of the past year or so, the truth is that we live in a globalised world with people from different backgrounds and nationalities working together.

In South Africa, there are 11 official languages, and a population of 3.9 million foreigners, meaning that it can’t be assumed that staff are conversant in English. This challenge is not unique to South Africa.

In a world of multilingual, multinational workforces, it can be difficult for companies to ensure that their health and safety communication is legally compliant. As a result, responsible individuals may not only end up putting workers in danger, but also find themselves subject to fines and even imprisonment.

If it turns out that an employee had an accident or breached your health and safety policy because they didn’t understand it, your organisation will still be liable.

Meeting standards
As business has become more globalised, so has health and safety policy, with international standards applying in many countries. That said, different countries and regions will have different requirements, and organisations will have to be compliant there too.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that each industry has its own health and safety focus, ranging from a policy regarding personal protective equipment to information on the use of company vehicles, as well as universal policy requirements like fire safety and the reporting of workplace accidents.

Additionally, there should be instructions for the safe use of tools, electrical devices, and machinery that should accompany any new items entering the workplace. Chemicals come with toxicity warnings and guidance for their safe use.

Furniture, equipment, and working environments must comply with ergonomic rules that consider people’s physical capabilities and limitations. All of those regulations have to be communicated to workers in a way that they understand and which they can be made aware of on an ongoing basis.

Taking a visual approach
One way of doing so would be to translate the policies that apply to your organisation into every language spoken by your employees and to send out communications in all those languages.

The thing is, making health and safety documentation understandable across multiple languages can be particularly challenging.

That’s especially so when you consider that the content of such documentation is often highly technical—yet it needs to be conveyed clearly with unambiguous impact. It’s also important to remember that any translation will have to take local idioms and figures of speech into account.

As such, relying on written communication to convey health and safety standards is unlikely to adequately meet your organisation’s needs. In fact, it may actually put you at greater risk.

A far better approach is to embrace visual communication. For critical information – which needs to be understood quickly to prevent injuries or fatalities – elaborate language and embellished adjectives are not effective.

The simplest, basic language is exactly what is needed to relay a critical message. What a person reads or hears as an instruction is understood through their own context, history, habits, culture and circumstance. A visual language, on the other hand, can ensure that there is no loss of context.

Additionally, visual communication dramatically reduces the translation burden. A no-word safety poster, for example, can convey critical information without using a single word, meaning a large diverse audience can understand and act upon it.

Think about when you’ve travelled internationally. Even if you didn’t speak the language, you probably understood the road signs in the country in which you were travelling and could easily obey them. There’s no reason why the same shouldn’t apply to your health and safety communication.

Beyond language
So, by taking a visually led approach to health and safety communication, you can actually make it easier to be legally compliant.
This will dramatically reduce the risk of your organisation facing the wrath of regulators. Perhaps more importantly, however, it creates a safer working environment for everyone, no matter where they’re from or what language they speak.