Improving literacy can save lives in the workplace - literally

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,” says Alison Campbell, principal research associate.

Many employers create manuals and other documents to set out health and safety practices, but relying on written materials leaves organizations open to the risk that their 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,” says 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. Sixty-four per cent of employer respondents felt that 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 half the respondents said that training to build these skills was available through their workplaces.
The report highlights 10 firms that have taken action to improve literacy skills in the interests of health and safety:

  • Abbot Point of Care, Ottawa;
  • Atlantic Health Sciences Corporation, Saint John;
  • Bristol Aerospace, Winnipeg;
  • City of Vancouver;
  • De Beers Canada, Yellowknife;
  • Keyera Energy, Calgary;
  • Lilydale Inc., Edmonton;
  • Loewen Windows, Steinbach, Manitoba;
  • Omega 2000 Cribbing Inc., Calgary; and
  • Robinson Paperboard Packaging, Mississauga.

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.

For more about the report, or to download the full version for free, visit The Conference Board of Canada's website.