Three key words for interpreters: safety, safety, safety

Post date: Oct 20, 2010 8:17:34 AM

"Safety" is a little word that never fails to elicit an opinion (particularly when contained in the dreaded phrase "Health and Safety"). Over the years, I have often tried gently (and sometimes not so gently) to lead colleagues and audiences away from the common view that "health and safety" is a tiresome add-on, an unwelcome intrusion into our everyday activities.

I appreciate that complying with "health and safety" regulations can be an onerous task, but my point has always been that safety has to be an integral part of what everybody does, not a burdensome afterthought. If we can't perform a work activity (or, in an educational context, a teaching or play activity) in a safe manner, we shouldn't do it at all - and that consideration obviously has to come before we embark on the activity - not afterwards! As someone once said, it ain't rocket science.

I remember the slightly bemused reaction when, as a school governor, I attempted an early risk assessment of a playground - there was a heavy, unstable wooden bird table, about 5 feet in height, which could easily have fallen onto a small child (the playgound in question was used by three- and four-year-olds). The school said they would look into it. A few days later, the offending item had been removed - despite the initial surprise at my assessment, someone had clearly given it a shove, and realised that it could tumble onto a toddler.

The point is that safety should be assessed on a logical basis, in advance of any activity, and a "safety culture" has to inform everything that we do at work. Pre-job risk assessments and safety briefings are there to protect and help us - not annoy us, or give us extra work. The same applies to interpreting (hooray - he's finally got there!). If there is no risk assessment and, where applicable, training (or, at the very least, briefing) in respect of potential safety issues in the working environment, how do you know it is safe for you to work?

For most conference-type interpreters working in a booth, there is a relatively standard set of safety issues that need to be considered (for example, is the equipment electrically safe? Is there safe access, and safe exit in the event of an emergency?) . Community interpreters are faced with different kinds of risks, including, in some cases, the risk of serious assault. (Please note that I don't lay claim to any particular expertise in conference and community interpreting).

For liaison/consecutive interpreters working in industrial facilities, general safety assessments should already have been carried out by the client, so the risks associated with the environment in question will have been identified, and mitigations put in place. This will probably mean that you are provided with personal safety equipment (also known as personal protective equipment, or "PPEs"). However, you should try and familiarise yourself with the general risks, and request information if you are unsure. You may not need formalised training (this will, however, be provided in certain facilities, such as nuclear plants), but you should be aware of things like standard safety signage, escape routes/procedures, etc.

Below is a list of general safety rules that interpreters working in industrial facilities should bear in mind. This is not intended to be a comprehensive list of instructions, and the author assumes no liability in respect of its contents, or any action undertaken or not undertaken on the basis of it. It is merely intended as a list of hints and tips based on my personal experience. Hope that's clear.

- Follow safety instructions given by the client. Do what they say, particularly in an accident or emergency. This applies in particular to things like safe distances, escape routes, etc.

- If you are unsure about what to do in a given location (i.e. how to open a door, or climb a ladder, or close a gate), watch the client, or ASK.

- Wear personal protective equipment as instructed. You should be given (at least) a hard hat and safety shoes, but your PPEs may also include eye protection, hearing protection, gloves and overalls. Some PPEs may only be required in certain locations (for example, hearing protection in noisy areas), so watch out for this, and follow the client's instructions. All industrial facilities should be equipped with safety risk signs indicating mandatary protections at entrances to rooms or areas.

- The client may also carry "collective" protective equipment, such as an oxygen meter or explosimeter, so be prepared for instructions when and where appropriate (for example, it may not be possible to enter a room if there is a risk of low oxygen content in the ambient air).

- Wear appropriate clothing. You will probably wear at least some, if not all, of your own clothes - so avoid things like long ties and expensive jackets. Clothing that dangles can get caught in machinery. You may also want to consider not wearing a skirt.

- Hold onto handrails when descending stairs - this seems like a no-brainer, but it's amazing how easy it is to trip, particularly on metal staircases made from grating-type material. And you should remove rings, too - a ring can easily get caught on a metal rail, potentially causing injury.

- Avoid walking in or on fluid or materials left on the floor - you don't know what they are or where they've been. You should also avoid leaning against walls, and touching piping or machinery. It may be hot, or rotating (or about to start rotating!).

- Interpreters working in industrial facilities are faced with specific risks. We have to watch people's lips, and listen carefully, and then turn to face other interlocutors when we are speaking ourselves. If we attempt to do this in an inappropriate area - for example on a staircase, or in a zone with a high ambient noise level - we may be at risk of injury. So if you feel that the environment you are in is not safe in terms of the interpreting task you are required to perform, suggest that you move to a more appropriate location (for example away from the stairs, or in a lower noise area). It is better to do that than risk an industrial safety accident.

- In addition, take care if you are on the move while interpreting - you should only do this if you are absolutely certain that it is safe. Interpreting while descending a staircase or moving in a cramped area can lead to a loss of focus on risk, and potentially result in an accident.

- A minor injury is still an injury: all industrial accidents are recorded, and industrial safety performance is measured, so don't be fooled into thinking that it's OK to cut your finger, or trip over and twist your ankle - your client should find even the smallest accident unacceptable, and so should you.

- The general advice given to interpreters working in industrial plants is "don't become a statistic"! If you take your safety, and the safety of others, seriously, you should be able to complete your work safely and successfully.

I will try and cover nuclear safety and radiation protection for interpreters in a future "word". In the meantime, check out my article on interpreting in nuclear plants ("Press red button/don't press red button", originally published in the Bulletin of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting) below.

The final word: if, as an interpreter, you have doubts about safety, you should always stop, step back, and speak to the client.

Happy - and above all safe - interpreting to all!