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Viewpoint: Use Signs and Symbols to Teach Safety Rules

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The biggest issue in construction safety is communication, and when you look at the most recent volume of U.S. OSHA regulations, you’ll see a hefty 550 pages of safety rules.

That’s a lot to communicate.

Now, how do you transmit what's in those pages, or the most important part of it, to a worker who does not understand or know anything about the English language? How do you make those regulations clear to a worker from China, India, Europe, Africa or South America when those workers aren’t familiar with safety as a principle, never mind as an organized body of written rules?

And remember, any workers who are weak in English will pretend to understand rather than question a safety briefing.
 
We’ve developed a program called Silent Safety that deals effectively with this challenge. The only way to do it was to develop an understandable universal language using video, signage and other nonverbal communication.

Construction isn’t the only business that has language issues related to safety.

Board an airplane in the U.S. or anywhere in the world and the flight attendant will review the pre-flight safety requirements – in English. Read the safety instructions in the seat back— they’re printed in English. Is the use of only two languages a demonstration of effective safety communication on overseas flights?

Translation into more languages at first would seem to be a promising solution. But it would be impractical to translate all safety documents, rules and regulations into the 180 different languages spoken around the world. We must consider that there are different dialects for many of the languages. The translation approach invites chaos.

We think airlines and construction employers can communicate safety without saying one word.
Our program is centered around the use of graphics, action, animation and diagrams to communicate safety.

So we would start with the clothing worn by construction workers on a jobsite.

To make the point that the construction worker is a professional just like a police officer or a fire fighter, we would exercise control over what is worn to the point where it would become a professional construction worker’s uniform. A uniform not only implies professionalism; it represents being a team member who surrenders part of his or her individuality for the the good of the team.

A professional construction worker wears a durable shirt, pants and steel-toed work boots. While steel toed work boots are not required for all construction professions, it should be part of the uniform as there are hazards facing the construction worker that pose a danger to the worker’s feet.
It seems obvious that construction professionals would all wear hardhats, yet do they? New workers should wear a lime green hard hat with a red reflective stripe.  Why?  Because it signifies that the new worker is in training and that others on a worksite can maintain at least a casual lookout for this new worker.

Safety glasses, gloves and a high-visibility vest complete the basic professional worker’s uniform.

After clothing and personal protective equipment, the first professional concept to adhere to is the concept of no drugs or alcohol in the workplace. The use of graphics, action and signs provide the instruction to the construction professional that drugs and alcohol are not permitted in the workplace.

Therefore, workers understand there will be zero tolerance for drugs or alcohol.

Now, I’m not saying you can use this system for a lot of the more complex aspects of safety, such as educating people how to erect and disassemble safe temporary work surfaces or how to recognize the build-up of natural gas in enclosed spaces. It is better suited to ideas that can be communicated plainly and visually.

There are a lot of good safety programs and classes out there. A system of wordless safety communication isn’t meant to replace any of those or even the basic OSHA 10-hour class.

But such a system can accomplish an effective information dump to a multi-lingual workforce covering 90% of the potential hazards and fatal injuries that they face.

The second week of October 2012 was a particularly deadly week for U.S. construction workers, with more than 10 killed in a span of less than three days. We must do better than that as an industry.

The details of each fatal accident are different, but overall we think that language and reading comprehension are important obstacles standing between good intentions and effective basic safety training in the multi-lingual jobsite. It’s time to take language and reading comprehension out of the equation, as far as it can be done, and get the critical safety messages across any way we can.

Timothy Galarnyk is chief executive of Construction Risk Management Inc., St. Paul, Minn., and co-founder of Silent Safety Productions. He can be reached at 612-366-1904.

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