There has been a lot of debate lately about lingua francas prevailing as official languages in Europe and other parts of the world. The English-only movement is the most popular tendency among those and, while it sounds convenient to solely rely on one language for all purposes, here is yet another example why this might not be such a good idea.
Last year, the Center for Disease Control (a United States government public health agency) released a report on a plant accident where chlorine gas was released when chemicals were improperly mixed, and over 150 workers were hospitalised. The employee who caused the accident, a monolingual Spanish-speaker, argued that the safety instructions were written in English, a language which he could not read. In fact, 68% of the workers at the plant spoke Spanish as a first language and only 17% of them used English as their native language.
On its surface, this unfortunate story fits neatly into the English-only narrative. A worker doesn’t know English and causes a serious accident; if the safety materials were accessible in languages other than English, perhaps we could avoid such accidents in the workplace. In fact, even knowing only English might prove of little help in such cases. Safety materials are often written in university-level English, despite the fact that factory workers might have low levels of literacy. Besides, for many of the non-English speaking workers, learning English on the side isn’t really an option if their work schedules are prohibitively busy or the cost of classes is higher than they can afford. For all of these reasons, teaching safety only in English is likely to result in serious implications in the workplace. Therefore, deciding whether to accommodate various languages isn’t so difficult when health risks are involved. Even if providing resources in smaller languages doesn’t make sense for most employers, it does make sense when a high percentage of workers speak those languages. For factories, accommodating even one non-English speaker might ensure safety.
If we are to take workplace safety seriously, it is essential that training sessions and written guides are always properly translated. The ‘burden’ of providing translation is low compared to the potential costs of maintaining an English-only workplace.