OHS Canada Magazine

Workplace safety: A universal language that can’t get lost in translation

Avatar photo

August 22, 2022
By Todd Humber

Health & Safety Language Barrier OHS Honours Translation

Photo: Adobe Stock

Canada’s increasing diversity poses both opportunities and challenges for employers.

New data from Statistic Canada’s Census shows a record number of us report speaking a native language other than English or French. And it’s not a small number — 4.6 million people, or about 13 per cent of the population.

In the OHS world, it means an evolution in how safety training and communications is approached is needed. Offering communications and materials in French and English simply isn’t sufficient anymore to keep your workers up to speed and safe on the job.

But it’s also not feasible to translate materials into every possible language. The data, for example, shows a surge in Canadians who speak South Asian languages such as Punjabi or Hindi — the growth in that group was eight times larger than the increase in population.

A best practice would be to have every bit of safety material, every communication and training manual, available in every language. And while you’re not supposed to say these things out loud, the costs in going down that road would be prohibitive, not to mention all the logistical challenges and the work required each time something critical was updated.


But hey, nobody ever said safety was easy.

Luckily, this profession is full of very creative leaders who look for ways to go above and beyond in their quest to keep people safe. We uncovered some of the issues employers are facing with language barriers while researching the winners for OHS Honours.

Colour-coded QR stickers

One of the winners (no spoilers here on which winner — the big announcement is Sept. 15 at the gala in Toronto) had a really creative idea that came out of an internal safety awards competition it runs. The idea was to affix stickers with QR codes to safety equipment. It also colour-coded the stickers, with each colour representing a different language, so workers would know which one to scan to get the information they needed.

It has safety training materials available in 11 languages, which is impressive. But when you consider that data shows that, in Canada, there are more than 215 languages spoken, the challenge to be comprehensive quickly becomes daunting.

This company’s ultimate solution is to move more to image-based information. Using pictures, rather than words, can convey the message faster and it’s a universal language.

Apps can spare some lost in translation pain

Technology is also riding to the rescue, with instant translation apps and AI that can translate any text just by holding your phone over it. (There are many apps available, but my favourite – because it’s free and works great – is Google Translate, which is available for iPhones and Android devices.) These are imperfect solutions, but they will improve with time.

Telling the stories of the companies that won OHS Honours was a lot of fun. We’re proud of these awards, and this is the first we’ve been able to gather in person to celebrate the winners and share their stories.

We’re also committed to keeping these awards accessible and pure. There is no nomination fee, and there never will be one. This is not a pay-to-play vanity awards gala. It is an opportunity to share best practices, to learn from each other and really capitalize on the fact there are no state secrets in workplace safety. And, of course, celebrate.

For 2023, we are expanding the award categories and looking to add more independent judges to our panel. If you’re interested in taking part, please reach out to me at thumber@annexbusinessmedia.com.

About OHS Honours

OHS Honours is the annual awards competition from the publishers of OHS Canada that is designed to identify, and just as importantly share, best practices from across the country. On Sept. 15, health and safety professionals from across Canada are gathering in Toronto at the Globe & Mail Centre for a cocktail reception, gala dinner and awards ceremony.

There is also a half-day conference on psychological safety taking place immediately before the party kicks off. There are still limited tickets available — for more information, visit https://www.psychologicallysafeworkplace.com/2023-psychologically-safe-workplace-awards/ (The winners of the Psychologically Safe Workplace Awards are also being celebrated that night. It’s all part of the Biggest Night in Safety.)

Todd Humber is the senior editor for OHS Canada. 


Stories continue below