Conveying safety messages – in any language

Program teaches OHS to workers with low literacy levels, ESL issues
By Johanna Faulk
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/13/2012

Given the staggering cost of workplace injuries, it’s critical occupational health and safety (OHS) training be as effective as possible to reduce incidents and claims.

Unfortunately, most OHS training takes up one full day or more in a classroom, with a presenter and 500 slides, each with reams of legislation that is then read to the audience. Even the best students can barely stay awake, much less learn anything.

Some companies and unions have worked hard to develop more engaging OHS training, but the bulk of it has little effect in keeping workers safe. Even engaging programs do not seem to make much of a difference, according to the 2010 report A Systematic Review of the Effectiveness of Training and Education for the Protection of Workers by the Institute for Work and Health.

To try and make a difference, Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters (CME) set up a two-year, national project titled Essential Skills through Safety and Health (ESSH) — funded by the Office of Literacy and Essential Skills at Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) — with the mandate to embed essential skills in OHS training.

The program was housed in CME’s provincial offices in five regions — British Columbia, the Prairies and the West, Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces — with principal investigators in each of the regions. Each interviewed 25 manufacturing companies, for a total of 125 companies across the country, to gain a snapshot of issues confronting employers in delivering OHS training and data on the types of hazards faced in the specific company.

What came out of the interviews clearly supported labour market data and research around the future labour force: It is estimated almost all manufacturing new hires (this is less true in the Atlantic provinces) in the next decade will be immigrants. In the Prairies and the West, the First Nations population will also be providing the future labour force.

So, it was obvious OHS efforts needed to focus on workers who do not have English or French as their first language, as well as those who have literacy issues. And it was critical trainers and employers be supported in working with immigrant workforces.

There were three stakeholders: industry, workers and the funders. To satisfy industry employers, the results needed to be visible on the job and the solution had to provide the least disruption to production requirements. For the workers, OHS training had to be innovative so they could learn and practise safety on the job. Ultimately, the success of the program had to be determined by their supervisors and managers. Finally, the model would also serve as a model for other types of workplace training.

Program design and supports

Learning a culture of safety: The course was constructed through discussions with supervisors, safety officers and employees at manufacturing companies across Canada. The essential skills embedded in the course had behavioural components that supervisors could see in action back on the job.

The Learning a Culture of Safety program aimed to have the smallest impact on production, running over 10 weeks with one hour per week. Each of the 35 companies that participated in the pilot selected two workers who had some knowledge of English or French to be in the program.

The training was delivered both face-to-face as well as over the Internet on a platform called Adobe Connect, which functioned as a live classroom in which participants and a facilitator could see and speak with each other.

The homework assignments were carried out back on the job. For example, participants were required to speak up at a safety meeting, complete a simple job task analysis as well as a job hazard analysis, develop a job aid for their respective jobs and deliver a presentation to management at the end of the program.

New media: To support the learning, new media products were developed so the class could check their understanding or practise. The learning products were fun but also extremely strong educationally and each was facilitated as a group activity.

One of the products taught participants how to conduct a task and hazard analysis (with a video of a tire being changed). By starting with the familiar in order to understand the more difficult, participants were able to practise the skills of observation and analysis, which they would then apply to their workplaces and specific jobs.

The other products checked for understanding. One asked participants to determine whether a phrase constituted the responsibility of workers or employers under the OHS legislation in the specific province in which the class was being taught. Another was a series of scenarios, both at home and at work, in which participants would decide the best place for a job aid. And another was an animated video that took a humourous look at the four levels of dealing with a hazard.

The most intricate was a simulation of a shop floor called Safety Shift to be played in groups of four. Each player could choose one of three activities to advance around the shop floor:

• “Speak Up,” in which the player was given a situation and asked to say something required of the specific situation.

• “It’s Your Choice,” a series of multiple choice questions about OHS legislation and training.

• “Document Dilemma,” in which players were presented with a chart or job aid and asked a question they could ascertain from the material presented.

Research: Research involved interviews with recent immigrant workers in their own language about health and safety, both in their home countries and in Canada. The three largest linguistic populations were chosen: Chinese (Mandarin), Punjabi and Tagalog (Philippines). Researchers who were native speakers of each of the languages conducted and recorded the interviews, then translated them and analyzed them for commonalities that might provide more contexts for the training.

The results demonstrated the critical importance of workplace OHS as the first means of acculturation for new Canadians to the workforce. It is the area in which the differences between the country of origin and Canada are most obvious to the immigrants. How it is taught and supported by management colours all future perceptions of the employers.

Project outcomes

The program succeeded beyond initial expectations. In many cases, supervisors and senior management asked for help in rolling out the program throughout their companies. One of the unexpected outcomes was the sense of personal agency that developed in each of the participants regarding their safety.

For example, one man worked for a manufacturing company in the Prairies. He was an immigrant who had been living in Canada for two years. After the first session of the course, his assignment was to ask a question of his supervisor about safety. He looked up some potential safety hazards related to the chemicals used for his job and realized wearing a mask would be very important, but the mask wasn’t located anywhere near his work station. As a result, he often didn’t wear one because it was too inconvenient.

So the employee mentioned the issue to his supervisor and, within a couple of weeks, there were new hooks next to his machine for a mask and goggles.

Through the program, positive changes were seen, at both the companies and with the individuals — changes in morale and efficiencies as well as individuals’ practice of their role and responsibilities in maintaining a safe workplace.

Johanna Faulk is national program director at Essential Skills through Safety and Health at the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters in Mississauga, Ont. She can be reached at (905) 672-3466 ext. 3265. For more information, visit

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