The following information is provided by SLIANZ as a position paper/standard practice paper/best practice paper.

As with all occupations in New Zealand, Sign Language Interpreting is covered by the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992. One of the major health and safety concerns for Sign Language interpreters is Occupational Overuse Syndrome (OOS); this is also known by many other names such as Repetitive Strain Injury, Cumulative Trauma Disorder, Cumulative Motion Injury.

In 2005 SLIANZ undertook a major study of various aspects of interpreting. Part of this study was to survey members regarding the occurrence of OOS. Results showed that 64% (23/36 respondents) of interpreters either have or have had a work related injury of some kind. This percentage can be compared to overseas figures Australia 32% (Madden: 1999) USA 82% (Scheuerle, Guilford and Habal: 2000)

Areas affected by injury include lower back, upper back, neck, shoulder, upper arm, outside elbow, inside elbow, lower arm, wrist and fingers. Injury can occur in sign language interpreters due to the forceful, speedy, repetitive movements of signing whilst working under the pressure of the mental processing involved in interpreting, often combined with insufficient rest breaks and awkward positioning. The continuous occurrence of these factors can place an interpreter at risk of injury.

"Excessive repetitive movements without adequate rest breaks cause micro traumas to the tissues. With a rest break, the body can heal itself. Without the break, the body then begins its inflammatory response in order to heal the injury. During the inflammatory response, the body sends signals to let us know that the healing process has begun: redness, pain, swelling, warmth and loss of range to the range of motion. If during the healing process, the muscles are used repeatedly, the injured area begins to swell more and more oedema can develop." Gary Sanderson (date unknown).

As a professional association for Sign Language interpreters in New Zealand we believe provision of interpreters is important in any situation where a Deaf person or sign language user needs to access information. We also believe that any provision of interpreting services must take place in a safe and healthy environment. To allow this to happen the following should be applied.

  • Provide 5 – 10 mins of rest break for each 30 – 45 mins of interpreting
  • In assignments exceeding 1 hour in length, use or book 2 interpreters
  • Ensure adequate preparation materials are provided to interpreters at least 24 hours prior to the assignment taking place. This includes copies of notes, powerpoint slides, speeches and also any audio-visual materials such as videos.
  • Encourage interpreters to learn how to identify risks to themselves and undertake training on prevention of OOS
  • Discuss and work with the interpreter to analyse the work environment. Work together to identify and eliminate possible risk factors. Examples of this may include use of chairs which can be adjusted to meet ergonomic needs of individual interpreters, remaining in one place for long periods of time, interpreting in awkward positions, lighting, temperature control.

Interpreters also need to take responsibility for their own health and safety in the workplace. We recommend interpreters work with employers to ensure the above points are utilised in an assignment and also put the following into use as part of their professional practice.

  • Use your discretion to ensure a team interpreter is booked where required for assignments over one-hour duration
  • Make sure adequate breaks are taken during the day. Ensure you have a proper morning, lunch and afternoon break.
  • Balance working hours over a week.
  • If returning to work after a lengthy break, ease back into full time work slowly, building up to 5 or 6 hours a day over the course of a week or two.
  • If problems occur bring them to the attention of management immediately. Don't carry on working in an unsafe environment.
  • Report any potential hazards as soon as possible.
  • Think about your signing style, can it be modified to lessen stress on joints.
  • Make a habit of stretching before and after an assignment.
  • Educate yourself to the risk factors involved in your profession and undertake measures to lessen the risk to yourself.

References:

  1. Madden, M: Prevalence and Impact of OOS in Auslan Interpreters (1999)
  2. RID: Standard Practice Paper Self-Care for Interpreter: Prevention and Care of Repetitive Strain Injuries downloaded from www.rid.org 14 October 2007
  3. Sanderson, G: Overuse Syndrome among Sign Language Interpreters (date unknown) downloaded from www.interpretersfriend.com 17 September 2004
  4. Scheuerle, J Guilford, M & Habal, M. B: Work-Related Cumulative Trauma Disorders and Interpreters for the Deaf (2000) in Applied occupational and Environmental Hygiene Volume 15(5): 429-434, 2000
  5. SLIANZ: A Snapshot for the NZSL Interpreting Profession 01 April 2004 – 31 March 2005 (2005)
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