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In recent years, the number of workplace accidents related to language has been around 10%. That percentage has been stable for a long time, so it is fair to say that language in the workplace seems to be a tricky thing.

This is not only to do with not being able to understand each other, there is more to it than that. Today, we look at the problems surrounding language and how you can ensure that it need not be a problem for safety in your organisation.

Growing internationally and therefore more languages

We are gradually becoming more international. More and more expats and international professionals are finding jobs in Belgium. The construction industry, too, is increasingly having to deal with employees and (sub)contractors who are not from Belgium and therefore do not have (full) command of the Dutch language.

So it is not surprising that the number of language-related accidents is increasing. This is partly because work and safety instructions are often drafted primarily in Dutch. By now, many organisations dealing with multiple nationalities will have translated them into English, and perhaps another language like German or French. You may have thought, problem solved.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. Because in doing so, we ignore the fact that English is also not the mother tongue for many. And the question is not only whether the translations are 100% correct but also whether the reader fully understands them. Often, the assumption will be made that they do, but this is certainly not always the case.

So our advice is also to make important documents, processes and work instructions available in multiple languages, preferably even in the employees’ mother tongue. This may seem like a lot of work, but when you use a document management system like Zenya DOC, fortunately the management is a lot easier. Linking different language versions of one document makes version management and updates manageable.

Furthermore, it is good to think about fixed terms or expressions you can use in case of emergencies. That way, you immediately build a bridge between employees who don’t speak each other’s language but may need each other when it really matters.

Language problems among Dutch-speaking employees too

If the problem with language only affected international workers, the percentage of language-related incidents might not be so high. In fact, there is another problem at play: in the Netherlands, we still face illiteracy and low literacy.

An estimated 1 in 10 adults in Belgium experience difficulties in reading and writing.

Some of these people may not have a job, but a significant number of them certainly do. The big question then is: how do you go about giving work and safety instructions to employees who cannot read well?

A similar challenge lies for people with dyslexia. These people can read, but it is usually not fast and it takes a lot of time and effort to go through texts. Suppose an incident occurs and a protocol has to be followed. Should we then expect someone with dyslexia to have memorised it? Or do we wait until things really go wrong because he or she does not get through the protocol fast enough?

A final group that should also be mentioned here is the group of people with a hearing impairment (or deaf) or a visual impairment (partially sighted or blind). Because here, too, you are dealing with language (sign language) and communication, albeit in a slightly different way. Nevertheless, some of the solutions are also suitable here.

Overcoming language barriers

For any language problem, the solution starts with a well-completed risk analysis naming the risks of language barriers. From there, you can seek and implement solutions so that everyone has a safe workplace.

We briefly mentioned above the management of your processes and work instructions in a DMS. We often think of documents (and diagrams) when we think of this type of information, but information can also be recorded in ways other than written text.

For instance, you can opt for video, spoken instructions or animations. This allows you to address employees in a different way. And that is not only a solution for language problems. Everyone learns differently, regardless of language level. By offering material in different ways, you make the learning process easier for everyone.

Wondering how to keep all this information organised? With interactive documents in Zenya DOC, you can offer a lot of information in different ways in one document. So also information in different languages. Employees only have to answer some intuitive questions to get to the right information.

In short: create a mix of materials and languages so that everyone feels addressed by the information. Regardless of what language they speak or how they learn. You can also make information easily available to blind or deaf employees or people with dyslexia in this way.

Finally, it is important to think about language use for every solution. Whether it concerns Dutch-language work instructions, translations, videos or podcasts: nobody benefits from using unnecessarily difficult language. The more accessible you keep it in terms of the use of words and sentence structure, the more people will actually understand what you mean.

There is always room for improvement, if you are open to it

Finally, we would like to mention that safety is an ongoing process in all areas. So also when it comes to language. It is therefore important that employees are motivated to report (near) incidents and are honest about what happened. So also when language played a role.

An accessible incident management system like Zenya FLOW contributes to the willingness to report. Besides handling incidents, it provides tools to perform incident analyses. If this shows that you can still improve the language in your organisation, you can take improvement measures.

If you are open to the fact that there is always room for improvement, no matter how well you are doing, this will ultimately benefit the safety of everyone in your organisation and language will play less and less of a role.

Infoland has more and more international clients and has therefore gained experience in offering multilingual documents and instructions. We are happy to share this knowledge with you. If you also experience these challenges, please contact our experts.

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