OHS Canada Magazine

Safety professionals are interpreters, but also need to be translators

May 23, 2023
By Louise Trotter
Health & Safety Columns safety

Photo: Adobe Stock

As an avid traveller, venturing to places near and afar, I often find myself wishing I was bilingual or multilingual. My ability to speak French is at its best “comme ci, comme ça” but outside of Quebec or France, I always take the time to learn a little of the language in the country I’m visiting.

The general words and phrases I make sure I know are: hello, goodbye, good day/evening/morning, thank you, you’re welcome, and what’s your name? This minimal vocabulary isn’t enough to have substantial, meaningful communication with anyone, but it’s an opportunity to start engagement.

Then, if I’m lucky and we have English as a common language, the conversation can begin. Or, the interaction ends, albeit short, it’s positive in part because I tried to speak their language.

The language of safety

But what I’ve realized is I do speak another language quite fluently. I speak “safety.”

There are a lot of acronyms in the safety profession: RACE, PPE, IRS, and TWA to name a few, and that’s usually coupled with jargon such as near misses, severity, risk, dose, exposure, and lost time. Often this results in a sentence for many workers sounding like a completely different language.


Our safety language is informed by the law in our jurisdictions, those acts, codes, and standards enforced by a provincial or territorial labour branch. We need to be able to interpret the relevance or application of a specific part, section, subsection, or clause of a regulation.

Simultaneously, we must understand and differentiate between what we “shall, will, or must” do contrary to what we “may or should” do. All this while discerning the intentional use of punctuation which conveys a deliberate meaning which could be the difference between compliance or contravention.

Historically the law affords a minimum level of protection that must be maintained whereby Employers were encouraged to exceed those standards. Employers were, and continue to be identified as ultimately having the greatest responsibility for health and safety in the workplace.

The role of safety professionals

Safety professionals are tasked with interpreting these regulatory documents continuously to ensure our health and safety programs meet the legal requirement. We develop our program inclusive of policies, procedures, guidelines, best practices and training to correspond to those legislative clauses. It’s a big task, and with each regulatory update, it becomes more exhaustive.

But if this is all we do, we may satisfy an inspection from a governing enforcement authority and prevent an order for infractions.

Still, we will not improve health and safety performance. To improve workplace and organizational health and safety performance, we need to be translators as safety professionals.

The traditional definition of a translator, it’s a person who translates from one language into another. If we agree that the language in the legislation is essentially a different language, we need to assess how we communicate safety in our workplaces critically. I’d suggest that this includes how we communicate and what language we communicate.

The requirement for employers to post specific documentation and signage, predicated on the presumption this is communicating safety, contributing to the workers’ “right to know,” is a good example. If we do our jobs as interpreters, we know exactly what needs to be posted. When an enforcement officer enters the site wanting to inspect the “Safety Bulletin Board,” we demonstrate due diligence and compliance.

But that’s not communicating. As “translators,” we must consider the nature of the work, our workers, and the workplace.

We are in a technological revolution, a post-pandemic world and collectively, we have shorter attention spans.

We work from home, internationally, on the road, at a site or, more commonly, a combination of these places. We need to translate to communicate to our workplace audience how we successfully communicate with our workers and apply this to safety.

Translating the language of safety

Secondly, and more difficult as safety professionals, we need to translate the language we are using. Essentially, we need to stop the “safety speak.” Let’s go back to the overriding philosophy of our legislation in Canada — the Internal Responsibility System (IRS). The principles of that construct have been well defined in most legislation and form the backbone of the regulations and organizational safety programs.

I don’t want to bemoan the IRS, fundamentally, I applaud this foundation of our legislation, but I don’t speak those three letters.

Notwithstanding the fact that if you google IRS, the immediate search is associated with the administration and enforcement arm for internal revenue laws in the United States. The ability of a worker to define this term has minimal impact on the intention of this platitude.

As safety professionals, we must incorporate the philosophy of the IRS into our program, but we should translate that term to be relatable for workers. Train workers with language depicting what safety should look like in their workplace, what they are responsible for in their role, and what they can expect to see from their colleagues and managers.

Being a translator may be a new skill set. It takes time to flow between the language of “safety” and the language of the “workplace.” Like anything, it’s best to go slow to go fast. Start by translating some regularly used phrases. Instead of talking about the risk of injuries, substitute by talking about how someone could be hurt, don’t talk about near misses; replace that with something more meaningful to your workforce.

Our health and safety programs may emulate the language of lawyers and policymakers, but this language is not understood at our workplaces. Similar to language limitations while travelling abroad, if we aren’t translating how we talk about safety, we are ultimately restricting interactions and essential conversations.

Louise Trotter, B.Sc., MPPAL, CRSP, is the director of health, wellness and safety at Shannex Incorporated in Halifax. 


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