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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

April 2022

Language justice boosts worker safety, empowers people, experts say

The NIEHS Worker Training Program has adopted a multilingual approach to advance communities' environmental, occupational health.

Inclusivity requires greater effort to create multilingual spaces, according to speakers at a March 2 webinar titled “Promoting Environmental and Occupational Public Health Through Language Justice.” NIEHS Partnerships for Environmental Public Health (PEPH) hosted the event.

Language justice is the right of every person to speak, understand, and be understood in the language they prefer and in which they feel most articulate and powerful, according to the American Bar Association. Beyond legal settings, the principle is important when it comes to working with communities to share research information that relates to environmental and occupational health, noted NIEHS Worker Training Program (WTP) Director Sharon Beard.

Sharon Beard Read about Beard’s leadership in areas of language justice, environmental justice, and climate resiliency. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw / NIEHS)

“A critical need in community engagement is access to information, and access to research and training participation can be limited by language barriers,” she said. “By communicating with community partners in their native language, academic and training programs build trust, empower community members, and promote environmental and occupational public health.”

According to Beard, WTP has adopted the American Public Health Association’s policy titled “Ensuring Language Justice in Occupational Safety and Health Training.”

“Language justice is imperative not only for the well-being of workers but also for the economic prosperity of the United States,” the policy states. “Language justice in training can increase worker safety and, therefore, reduce injuries and fatalities, decrease workers’ compensation claims, and increase worker productivity and morale.”

Inclusive language spaces

“Language justice is only as strong as the resources given to it,” according to Jessica Martinez co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH).

Martinez, who speaks English, Spanish, and Portuguese, noted that skilled interpreters, translators, and use of translation equipment are necessary but not enough to build multilingual spaces. She suggested the following best practices.

Jessica Martinez Martinez said having a team of interpreters is recommended for multilingual events, and she added that just because someone is bilingual does not mean they are a trained interpreter. Training and education are key, so be prepared to make an investment. (Photo courtesy of Jessica Martinez)
  • Speak at a moderate pace.
  • One person speaks at a time.
  • Explain acronyms.
  • Reduce use of figures of speech.

Multilingual messaging

The use of multiple languages in outreach and educational materials is a key part of translating environmental health sciences research, noted attendees.

BJ Cummings and Lisa Hayward, Ph.D., colleagues at the NIEHS-funded University of Washington Superfund Research Program, shared instances in which they created a series of multilingual videos to promote public health initiatives. Trusted language ambassadors from the community were critical to the success of their efforts, they said.

Seeking to promote knowledge about safe fishing near Seattle's Duwamish River, they developed nine videos in four languages (English, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Cambodian).

BJ Cummings and Lisa Hayward, Ph.D. Language justice efforts of Cummings, left, began in Seattle’s multilingual Duwamish River communities two decades ago. The river had been contaminated with sewage, toxic chemicals, and storm water runoff. Hayward, right, began working on language justice issues almost a decade ago, while she was at the Northwest Climate Adaptation Science Center. (Photos courtesy of BJ Cummings and Lisa Hayward, respectively)

“Then, we found ourselves in a good position to create a series of multilingual videos about COVID-19,” said Hayward. When the pandemic hit Washington state, one of the first infection hotspots in the U.S., Cummings and Hayward created a series of videos as a stopgap.

“Language is a powerful tool to build leadership, transform power, and empower marginalized communities,” Cummings said. “When we pursue language justice, we are not just ensuring access to language translation but seeking to shift the power dynamics to a more equitable and inclusive platform for fully engaging with communities in research and decision-making.”

Podcasts and pictograms

Attendees learned new ways to create multilingual spaces in meetings and educational materials.

Suggestions included hosting multilingual listening sessions and breakout rooms, creating pictographs and infographics in multiple languages, and hosting podcasts or radio broadcasts in multiple languages to reach broader audience segments.

“Recognize that the work is long-term,” Martinez said. “Keep bringing it up, keep exploring it. We are all learning, and we can all make it better.”

In closing, Beard reminded attendees that NIEHS offers conference support and administrative supplements that could be used to help grantees integrate language justice into community engagement efforts.

(Jennifer Harker, Ph.D., is a technical writer-editor in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)

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