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Parliament spaces out microphones after another interpreter is injured

OTTAWA — The federal government has been forced to adjust the set-up in the House of Commons and committee rooms after another language interpreter suffered a significant hearing injury.

The incident occurred April 8 during a closed-door meeting of the House foreign-affairs committee.

“I always do caution everyone to pay attention to that, because we have had many incidents,” Liberal MP Ali Ehsassi, the committee’s chair, said Monday. 

“I certainly hope members (of Parliament) take it more seriously. It’s very disconcerting.”

The Canadian Association of Professional Employees says the worker has been off for the past three weeks, and the union is blaming inadequate equipment on Parliament Hill for multiple injuries in recent years.

The latest incident involved the Larsen effect, which occurs when a microphone and an earpiece get too close, resulting in sharp, sudden feedback that can be loud or frequent enough to permanently injure someone.

The federal Labour Program, which oversees labour standards in federally regulated workplaces, issued an order about the effect on April 25. 

Written in French, the order noted that that a health and safety officer visiting the Hill the previous week found exposure to the Larsen effect “constitutes a danger” for staff wearing headphones.

“Repeated exposure to the Larsen effect can cause permanent damage to the hearing health of interpreters,” reads the order, which calls for changes to how meeting spaces are set up to prevent it from happening again.

House of Commons Speaker Greg Fergus notified MPs on Monday morning that tables in committee rooms were rearranged to keep microphones and earpieces farther apart. 

Stickers are now posted where MPs can place unused earpieces, along with printed instructions on how to prevent incidents.

Fergus also reminded MPs not to touch the microphone or its stem when it’s on, lean in and out from the microphone while speaking or adjust their earpiece volume when sitting near a live microphone.

“The House of Commons works with the Translation Bureau to ensure the best possible working conditions for interpreters,” Fergus’s office wrote in a statement, noting that this includes measures “at the technological, behavioural and physical levels.”

Experts have told Parliament that the staff who translate meetings between English and French are being put at risk of injury because they are sometimes exposed to sudden, loud noises even as they strain to hear some voices. 

“Despite an unacceptably high number of workplace injuries, the Translation Bureau has been slow to implement proper measures to protect their employees,” the union said in a statement on Saturday.

Public Services and Procurement Canada, which oversees the Translation Bureau, did not immediately provide comment. 

The union said the latest incident occurred during a committee meeting as MPs were drafting a report.

There were two instances of sharp feedback, the union said, and Ehsassi warned MPs to respect existing protocols. 

But that didn’t happen, the union said, and a third, very loud episode of feedback followed. The interpreter left work and later sought medical attention.

Ehsassi said he doesn’t recall the specifics of what happened, but he hopes the new rules will “insulate against further problems.”

Bloc Québécois MP Stéphane Bergeron said MPs only learned an interpreter had been injured after the meeting concluded. He noted that his party opposes hybrid sittings, in part because of interpreter injuries.

“We have to do everything possible to ensure the safety of House of Commons staff,” he said in French.

“If it’s only a matter of keeping our earpiece away from the microphone, that seems like a very modest contribution to bolster the safety of our interpreters.”

Conservative MP Ziad Aboultaif said he didn’t recall the incident, but these injuries seem easy to prevent. 

“People need to use the recommended equipment, and that will solve the problem,” he said.

So many interpreters were placed on injury leave in 2022 that the public service hired contract workers to make up for the staff shortages. 

The shortage has helped constrain committee travel, since a certain number of interpreters are required to ensure MPs’ meetings abroad can be conducted in both official languages. 

Last year, the Labour Program found Ottawa was breaking labour laws by not adequately protecting interpreters, following an October 2022 incident in which a parliamentary interpreter was sent to the hospital in an ambulance after experiencing acoustic shock during a Senate committee meeting.

The union had argued the Translation Bureau was not adequately protecting employees who are working in hybrid settings, where people appearing virtually are using substandard devices in breach of committee rules.

At the Senate committee in question, someone was allowed to testify without any headset.

Officials have said that parliamentary interpreters can suspend their services if someone appearing virtually is not wearing a headset that appears on a list of approved devices. 

People have repeatedly ignored the instructions to use an approved device during parliamentary hearings and press conferences.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 29, 2024.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press

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