A growing number of U.S. workers express and comprehend messages best - and sometimes exclusively - in a language other than English. Hispanics constitute the greatest percentage of these workers and are now the nation's most numerous ethnic minority. Despite their minority status, however, Hispanics figure disproportionately large as the victims of on-the-job injuries and deaths, these dangers being greatest to those who speak and understand English the least. Improving workplace safety thus hinges in part on the ability of occupational safety and health professionals to communicate their vital messages in a foreign language.
Yet merely communicating safety messages in Spanish is no guarantee that the workplace will become less dangerous for Hispanics or less fraught with liability and compliance hazards for their employers. Indeed, demographic trends - including the accelerating settlement in non-metropolitan and rural areas of ever greater numbers of Hispanics who are not proficient even in their mother tongue - ensure that the effective communication of safety policies and procedures to literally millions of working people will remain a challenge for years to come.
Facing this situation, safety and health professionals need to learn how to judge, select and work with translators and interpreters, not merely as converters of messages, but as critically influential conveyors of meaning who can help assure that the training given to non-English-speaking employees has been received, is understood, and is being followed and acted upon.
How can you gauge whether a translator or interpreter is professionally competent? If you only understand English yourself, how can you know if a translation merely preserves the form of your message as it passes between languages or really transmits its meaning and critical nuances? And what can safety professionals do to make this strategic task easier for the bilingual specialists they enlist to aid them?
This paper addresses such questions with reference to English-to-Spanish translation and interpretation in the workplace, but the guidelines presented here are useful whenever and wherever circumstances demand successful bilingual communication. These suggestions can promote more efficient communication with Spanish-speaking employees and help cut workplace injuries and deaths, improve compliance with OSHA requirements and other regulations, lower liability costs, trim workers' compensation premiums, and reduce employee turnover.
The first Spanish-speaking immigrants to the Americas founded isolated settlements in what they called "New Spain." Today, Hispanics are creating a modern-day New Spain in the United States, riding a settlement wave not limited to enclaves, but extending unexpectedly wide and fast across the nation's heartland.
This trend poses particular communication challenges for safety professionals and their employers and has progressed so far that the U.S. is now the fourth-largest Spanish-speaking country in the world.