The Importance of Language in EHS

by Tjeerd Hendel-Blackford 18 Jul. 2017

It comes as no surprise that one of the key challenges that our frequent surveys of corporate EHS directors highlights is “language”. Language and communication (signs, signals, warnings, labels) are of course one of the most critical aspects of any EHS program. Without clear information, instructions and reminders to employees and visitors, risks are increased or even ignored.

There are a whole host of anecdotes than can be drawn upon to highlight this. I have heard (unconfirmed) reports of American companies that required all of their global facilities to have their safety signs in English, according to their corporate standard. Although well-intentioned, this did not take into consideration many of the employees stationed around the world with little or no English language experience. It is compounded by the fact that employees with the lowest level of education (and hence literacy and reading skills) are most likely to be the victims of a workplace accident.

There is also the cultural aspect regarding this issue. For example, the Brits are not-renowned for being polyglots, and neither are the French. Yet in our increasingly globalized world, English has established itself as the global language of business. [I am (half) British and live in France, so I have license to point this out] The French don’t like this. They don’t like being told what to do, and particularly not in English. Most French people speak perfectly passable English but they would never let an English-speaker know this unless it was absolutely necessary. The point is tongue-in-cheek of course and the French are by no means alone in being fiercely proud and protective of their beautiful language, but you will get engagement and ownership from your non-English speaking colleagues if they are made to feel included, which means providing them with adequate information, guidance and tools in their own language.

Add to this situation the potential for mistranslations and misinterpretations and the problem is compounded further. For example in French “sécurité” is actually a word that means both “security” and “safety”. We have first-hand experience of a misunderstanding caused by this confusion, whereby a French facility had prepared for an external audit to show their site’s security features, only for the US corporate auditors to arrive to focus on safety.

Similarly in many languages, the words for “permit”, “authorization”, “license” and “registration” can cause a great deal of confusion, as again, they could mean the same, or slightly different things.

Explaining to someone the difference between “laws”, “standards”, “rules”, “legislation” and “regulations” can also be confusing. Even in English the meanings and context of these words can be interchangeable. All laws are legislation, but all laws are not regulations. Standards are not typically legislation, but in some countries, they are. Acts are legislation, and in one sense are Regulations, but in another sense, they are not. You get the picture…

One of the standout phrases that we come across that provides a translation challenge is the American-English “Lock-out/Tag-out”. A term that originated in the USA and is uniquely related to process safety. Translating this directly into a language other than English can provide some interesting results. In Italian for example, we don’t even translate the term literally as “serrato/etichettato” would be practically meaningless – so we just use the English to avoid confusion.

We at Enhesa have recognized these challenges since we started serving our clients over 25 years ago and have always recognized the importance of language. Today, although all our services are delivered in English as standard – we offer local language versions of our services where our clients require them. All of our in-house EHS regulatory consultants, on top of their academic and legal abilities, are at least bi-lingual in English and their local language.

Today all of our services and client websites offer “one-click” language-switching functionality and in the case of our Audit ScoreCards, even allow the display of English and local language content alongside each other.

This means we systematically translate our regulatory analysis into 31 languages on a regular basis. However, as Ainhoa Zamakona, our Translation Coordinator informs me “if you also count the numerous “locales” we cover (such as Mexican Spanish), this number jumps to over 60.”

As well as providing translations of our consolidated regulatory analysis, we also (as standard) provide access to the full and original texts of laws for all jurisdictions in their local language.

Ainhoa estimates that in our database we have over 11 million words translated. Yet in offering continual updates to our clients, we are translating a further 1.75 million words every year into these languages. All translations of Enhesa regulatory analysis are carried out by professionals and reviewed by native speakers.

This means that our clients can rest assured that having summaries, requirements and guidance on applicable EHS laws available in English and the local language of the country in question, means that the risk of misunderstanding, misinterpretation and ownership of compliance will hopefully be considerably less.