Language barriers can cause work hazards

Dec. 7, 2012 at 11:46 PM

ATLANTA, Dec. 7 (UPI) -- U.S. health officials advise managers, who must communicate job hazards, to consider the literacy, education level and native language of employees.

A report published in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report said last year in Arkansas a Spanish-speaking employee at a poultry processing plant began to fill a 55-gallon drum with sodium hypochlorite that unknowingly contained a residual acidic antimicrobial solution.

The mixing of these substances resulted in a release of chlorine gas into the plant where about 600 workers were present. Chlorine gas is a poisonous gas and lung irritant, and when it comes into contact with moist tissue in the eyes, throat and lungs, an acid is produced that can damage these tissues, health officials said.

"More than 150 employees were hospitalized, five of whom required admission to the intensive care unit. Six months after the incident, three employees continued to have abnormal breathing tests consistent with reactive airways dysfunction syndrome, also known as irritant-induced asthma," the report said. "The drum that was filled with sodium hypochlorite was labeled in English. The worker that filled the drum could read only in Spanish."

Of the 545 people who participated in the investigation, 17 percent primarily spoke English, 68 percent primarily spoke Spanish, 12 percent primarily spoke Marshallese and 3 percent spoke other languages, the report said.

"This preventable incident highlights the importance of training workers about the hazards of their jobs in a manner they can understand," CDC officials said. "All communication, training, and signage in the workplace should be easy-to-read and provided in languages understood by employees."

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