Hill Times editorial: One incident is one too many

This editorial was originally published in The Hill Times on March 20.

One incident is one too many
By Greg Phillips

Some of us have been unlucky enough to experience a virtual meeting with piercing sound that caused excruciating pain in our ear. For federal interpreters who have been simultaneously interpreting for hybrid parliamentary meetings, such incidents are far too common and have led to a record number of reported injuries over the last three years.

Their employer, the federal government, has allowed this to go on for too long.

Known as "acoustic shock" these types of incidents produce concussion-like symptoms and can lead to permanent hearing loss, among other long-lasting effects, depending on their severity. Last fall an incident while interpreting was so severe it sent a freelance interpreter to the hospital by ambulance.

How could this happen? The guidelines in place to prevent these injuries are not consistently followed.

Three years of constant injuries

Since the move to hybrid meetings due to the pandemic, interpreters’ work has been hampered by technical glitches and participants’ poor compliance with technical standards, with only minimal improvements, causing many interpreters to be injured on the job.

The toll has been considerable. Since 2020, hearing issues have led 33 out of 70 staff interpreters to take 349 sick days for these workplace injuries. In any given month, 10 or so are reassigned to other duties on doctor's orders.

Most federal employees will go their entire career without filing an incident report. The situation is highly anomalous.

As a result, some interpreters have chosen to abandon their profession, rather than risk further injury.

Knock-on effects for official languages

Interpreters are a highly skilled workforce and difficult to replace. When they are out on sick leave, work reduced hours, are reassigned to other duties, or leave the profession, it causes a shortage of qualified interpreters that directly affects proceedings.

Just two weeks ago technical issues caused service disruptions which postponed a meeting where officials from Google were to testify. Other committee meetings have seen delays in starting as technicians assess the poor sound quality the interpreter notes during testing. While this is a good step in protecting interpreters’ health and safety, it impacts parliamentary business. A permanent solution is still needed.

If interpreters’ health and safety is not enough to convince leadership of the dire necessity to address this matter, disruption of parliamentary proceedings should.

Everyone must step up

For years, the government’s response has been to pass the hot potato around to various departments and people despite repeated warnings, reports, meetings, and requests to implement recommendations.

On February 1, following a formal complaint filed one year earlier, the Labour Program of Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) ruled in favour of interpreters, recognizing the employer’s failure to protect against the health and safety risks. 

This was only a small victory, as it did not address the inadequacies of Parliament’s audio-visual system which interpreters rely on. According to the National Research Council’s October 2021 report on the sound quality, it is neither up to standard nor safe.

While the Translation Bureau has committed to implementing the recommended measures and to exercising more vigilance when it comes to protecting their interpreters’ health and safety, there is dire need for all meeting participants to do their part as well.

Following the guidelines is the obvious first step. But parliamentarians can also use their power to support the allocation of financial resources to ensure the Parliament’s audio-visual equipment is no longer a health hazard.

A glimmer of hope

Since the appointment of Minister Jaczek to Public Services and Procurement Canada, which oversees the Translation Bureau, we have seen some movement in the right direction. However, trust needs to be restored between interpreters and the Translation Bureau, which needs to live up to its commitment to ensuring the health and safety of its employees.

One incident is one too many.

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