Improving literacy can save lives in the workplace

Relying on written materials leaves employers open to risk workers may not be able to understand them: Conference Board report

Employers are more confident than workers or labour representatives in the ability of employees to understand health and safety policies, according to survey results published in What You Don't Know Can Hurt You: Literacy's Impact on Workplace Health and Safety by the Conference Board of Canada.

"This gap in perception creates the potential for accidents in the workplace to occur. Because employers are confident in their workers' literacy levels, they are less likely to see the need for training to upgrade employees' knowledge and understanding of health and safety practices," said Alison Campbell, principal research associate with the Conference Board of Canada.

Employers create manuals and other documents to set out health and safety practices, but relying on written materials leaves organizations open to the risk employees may not be able to read and understand them. When incidents occur, the typical response is to review policies and practices — rather than verifying whether individuals have the literacy and basic skills to fully understand or follow set procedures.

"Without even realizing it, some individuals with low literacy skills put themselves, their co-workers and the public at risk," said Campbell.

The report summarizes the results of a two-year project for Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, including a literature review, national survey, interviews with stakeholders and case studies.

A total of 319 respondents answered the survey: 136 employers (including four workers' compensation boards), 126 workers, 26 union representatives, 19 immigrant-service providers, and 12 Aboriginal service providers. Nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) of employer respondents felt health and safety practices were understood fully or to a large extent; only 40 per cent of workers and 50 per cent of labour respondents agreed. Immigrant service providers and Aboriginal service agencies also expressed concerns about worker understanding of health and safety policies.

Although respondents viewed skills such as listening to instruction, reading printed information, and applying information as very important, little more than one-half of respondents said training to build these skills was available through their workplaces.

The report outlines seven steps to take as an organizational action plan:

1. Review past incidents through "a literacy lens."

2. Review organizational health and safety policies and practices.

3. Examine policies and practices from the perspective of an individual with lower literacy levels.

4. Brainstorm solutions to help users understand health and safety documents.

5. Measure and track health and safety incidents and improvements.

6. Recognize outcomes.

7. Reward efforts to improve literacy skills.

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