Is Language a Barrier to Safe Design?

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Monday, August 17th, 2015
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Around Australia, the value of a multicultural workforce not just within the building and engineering sector but throughout the economy more generally cannot be understated.

As well as providing critical expertise, and differing experience and perspectives, employees from multicultural backgrounds provide Australian businesses with exposure to different ways of working and greater understanding of customs, tastes and ways of doing business in foreign markets or with foreign customers or business partners. Indeed, based upon 2009/10 data, modelling by Access Economics showed that in total, arriving migrants made a net economic contribution of $880 million in their first year. After a decade, this had risen to between $1 billion and $2 billion, the modelling suggested.

Nevertheless, greater diversity presents specific challenges when it comes to Safety in Design – not only with regard to the need to cater for a growing number of building occupants from diverse backgrounds within workforces that occupy built structures post-construction (which has implications in terms of the effectiveness of warning signs or written safety instructions) but more so in terms of the involvement of foreign engineers and others within the design team. With potentially greater migration following the signing of Free Trade Agreements with Japan, China and South Korea, the need to address these challenges is more important than ever.

Daniela Tutman, a Perth-based risk and process safety engineer and consultant to the oil, energy and chemical sectors, says the challenges revolve around a number of areas. Understanding of Australian standards, along with appreciation of the need to provide equivalent levels of safety where there is a deviation in the design as required by Australian engineering specifications was an issue, she said. Also, some foreign companies and engineers used to operating in a certain way overseas may resist design change even when it is demonstrated that existing designs create unacceptable levels of risk.

Cultural issues can be significant, as well. Dialogue about potential design deficiencies may be interpreted as a personal attack, and the need for transparency in engineering calculations and to allow for adequate checking and review may not be as well appreciated as it could be. Understanding the importance of providing process/equipment data and hazardous material inventory to enable the final owner of the facility to fully understand the hazards associated with the facility being designed was also crucial, Tutman said.

Actual language barriers can be an issue, and can necessitate the need for regular feedback, review of design work and meetings to discuss project issues and seek input from team members. In addition, people from specific cultural backgrounds may have issues with open communication from those of other backgrounds courtesy largely of the history – sometimes filled with conflict – between nations.

As for issues associated with workers who occupy the building or facility post-completion potentially not being able to fully comprehend warning signs or written safety instructions, Tutman said this can be addressed by a number of sensible measures.

“Mitigating risk in design is least relied upon warning signs,” she said. “Firstly, [it] is about the layout of the facility, then the actual design in terms of selecting materials of construction based upon process parameters such as pressure, temperature, flow, etc, then physical protection against moving parts or electrical energy, etc.

“Depending upon where a facility is constructed, the warning signs can be provided in several languages. Also, an introduction provided to all workers in their own language prior to entering a facility for the first time can mitigate the inherent risks associated with specific installations.”

Pedram Danesh-Mand, a director of risk management at Aquenta Consulting and the NSW president of the Risk Engineering Society, said challenges associated with growing levels of multiculturalism from a safe design perspective during delivery of engineering projects are plentiful. They include the structure of decision making, leadership choices including direct or indirect communication, the potential for misinterpretation, issues associated with hierarchy and authority (upwards, downwards and horizontally) and getting a consistent approach toward safe design in which risks are identified and addressed both early in the process and throughout the project’s life span.

Danesh-Mand said problems do not revolve so much around language barriers per se, but more broadly about information being understood by all team members. He said this becomes easier the longer teams work together and the more they share common goals and objectives.

“In my opinion, language isn’t the issue, it’s more broadly about the interpretation of information and the need for every one of us to be responsible for ensuring comprehension is consistent by whatever means necessary,” he said. “In any team of individuals with varying backgrounds, the way information is consumed and interpreted will vary according to a number of variables – of course, language is one of those variables.”

Australia’s multicultural workforce is a blessing to our economy, society and country.

But there are challenges, and sensible measures are needed if we are to design, construct, maintain and operate buildings and facilities which are safe for all involved.

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