Federal government failed to protect Parliament Hill interpreters from injury: Tribunal
Health & Safety Acoustic Shock ottawa Sound
By Dylan Robertson
The federal government has been found in breach of the labour code for failing to protect Parliament Hill interpreters from workplace injuries.
On Feb. 1, a health and safety officer with the federal Labour Program ruled in favour of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees. The union had argued the Translation Bureau was not adequately protecting employees who are working in hybrid settings.
“The employer did not ensure the protection of its employees with regard to health and safety by not ensuring that, during meetings with simultaneous interpretation, the work of interpretation would be done only when virtual participants wear a microphone that complies with ISO (regulatory) standards,” reads the French-language ruling.
Experts have told Parliament that the staff who translate meetings between English and French are being put at risk of injury because they are straining to hear some voices and are exposed to sudden, loud noises.
Last October, a parliamentary interpreter was sent to the hospital with acoustic shock during a Senate committee meeting in which the chair did not enforce rules requiring remote participants to wear headsets.
So many interpreters were placed on injury leave last year that the department hired contract workers to make up for the staff shortages.
The union filed a formal complaint a year ago, leading to a Jan. 30 inspection of the Translation Bureau’s offices and last week’s ruling.
The tribunal gave Public Services and Procurement Canada until Monday to ensure committee witnesses are wearing the correct headset, and to report on steps taken by Feb. 15.
Meanwhile, the department has until March 1 to examine its equipment and report back to the tribunal.
“Random tests must be carried out in a real work situation by a qualified person, and the employer must implement the (resulting) recommendations in order to ensure that the system is safe for the auditory system of its employees,” reads a tribunal order, in French.
The department can appeal those orders within a month, but a spokeswoman suggested it will follow the ruling.
“In collaboration with its partners, the Translation Bureau will follow these instructions, which are in line with efforts already in place to protect interpreters,” Stefanie Hamel wrote in an email.
“The number of health and safety incidents linked to sound quality has increased since the pandemic made virtual and hybrid meetings commonplace.”
Technician always present
The department said it’s acknowledged the issue and taken steps such as making sure a technician is always present and reducing working hours for virtual sittings without affecting interpreters’ pay.
“Interpreters have the directive to interrupt the service if the working conditions endanger their health,” reads a March 2022 statement from the department.
House and Senate committee chairs are supposed to ensure that those attending virtually, including both testifying witnesses and participating parliamentarians, are using a headset with a microphone wand.
Both chambers also reimburse remote witnesses for the purchase of an appropriate headset.
However, chairs have often ignored these rules, allowing people to testify with substandard earbuds or even laptop microphones.