The importance of overcoming language barriers

Recent decision of the NSW Industrial Relations Commission in Inspector Ochoa v East Sun Building Pty Ltd & Gao has served as a timely reminder of companies to ensure that their OHS procedures take into account any language and literacy issues amongst the workforce.

Recent case, none of the employees at the company, East Sun Building Pty Ltd, spoke English. Their supervisor (who was also the general manager of the company, giving him a double whammy of responsibility) was required to translate any instructions given on the construction project. The supervisor failed to advise his workers that they were not to use scaffolding at the premises as it was in a partially dismantled state, as he had been advised by contractors on the site. As a result of the supervisor’s failure, a worker was injured.  This highlights dual issues: there is a risk that instructions aren’t passed on, as happened on the East Sun Building site, but there is also no way for management to be fully confident  that the supervisor has interpreted instructions correctly.

While this problem is not a new one, the case should remind all employers and safety professionals of their obligations to ensure migrant workers understand safety procedures and their own occupational health and safety responsibilities.

In addition to the language barrier that can exist in a multi-cultural workplace, employers should also be aware of any literacy barriers amongst their employees. The inability to read, or to read only poorly, can mean that workers don’t understand their OHS obligations. It can be additionally difficult for supervisors to determine which workers have literacy issues as many won’t admit to reading problems. It is up to managers to fully understand the potential limitations of their workers and to put into place systems that manage the impact these limitations can have on safety, productivity and efficiencies.

In order to help manage language and literacy barriers, managers should ensure all their plans are written in plain English. This means using verbs instead of nouns, active voice instead of passive voice and, importantly, simple grammar. Safe work method statements (SWMS) should be explained verbally to those with language or literacy barriers to ensure your workers fully understand them. Management should also identify the different languages spoken by your workers and have the WorkCover brochures in those languages available.

Most importantly, it is up to management to identify those workers who may have language and literacy issues and to put into place risk management procedures to mitigate those risks.