One of the most ignored OHS obligations in Australian workplace is to provide safety information in a language other than English. Most workplaces in a multicultural society struggle greatly with this obligation and, more often than not, rely on employees to pass on OHS information to their colleagues in the employee’s language.
This translation is an integral part of a safety management system and needs to be well-considered when developing and operating a system. OHS professionals need to be assured that the correct OHS information is getting to where it is needed and understood at that point.
A recent discrimination case that illustrated these issues occurred in the New South Wales Administrative Decisions Tribunal (Tanevski vs Fluor Australia P/L  7 August 2008). The tribunal found that Fluor had indirectly discriminated against Mr Tanevski (a Fluor employee since 2003 and with 314 years as a supervisor in rail maintenance) by placing a literacy requirement on him that he was unable to meet and that the tribunal found to be unreasonable.
A safety report had highlighted the “management of low English literacy standards of personnel” as a high priority for improvement. Mr Tanevski had been demoted from his role as a supervisor over concerns about his literacy level in relation to complying with the requirements under its OHS management system. The tribunal found that the company’s concerns were legitimate but unreasonable as
“there was a feasible, low cost alternative which did not involve any increased risk to safety…[to].provide him with training on the new HSE system, instruct him on how to complete the necessary forms and assist him with the duties, such as writing statements and reports, which he was unable to perform”.
In other words, the company needed to support the operation of the safety management system by helping the people who need to use it.
There is also another point to make from an OHS management perspective. Should not the new HSE system have accommodated the known literacy needs of existing employees? Information in the decision says that Mr Tanevski was a five-year employee with the company and there were no concerns with his work performance, indeed testimonials spoke otherwise.
The New South Wales OHS Act 2000 states
“An employer must ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of all the employees of the employer.
That duty extends (without limitation) to the following:…
(d) providing such information, instruction, training and supervision as may be necessary to ensure the employees’ health and safety at work,…”
The Victorian OHS Act is more specific:
“An employer must, so far as is reasonably practicable—………..
(c) provide information to employees of the employer (in such other languages as appropriate) concerning health and safety at the workplace…….”
The rail safety legislation may have obligations specifically to that industry. Both OHS regulators, WorkCover NSW and WorkSafe Victoria, have guidance notes on how to provide OHS information in languages other than English. WorkSafe Victoria also lists the language needs of employees as a necessary element in any OHS training needs analysis.
The Tanevski case may also have been dealt with by WorkCover NSW but that the issue came up through legal action on discrimination in a non-OHS tribunal, illustrates that OHS professionals cannot rely only on information provided by the OHS regulators.