Study looks at literacy effect on workplace safety

Employers have a higher confidence level when it comes to workers’ ability to comprehend health and safety policies, than the workers themselves, and this is creating a gap that can increase the risk for workplace injuries.

This is according to a new study released by the Conference Board of Canada entitled, What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You: Literacy’s Impact on Workplace Health and Safety. The study included a survey of 319 respondents, representing 136 employers, 126 workers, 26 union representatives, 19 immigrant service providers and 12 aboriginal service providers.

Sixty-four per cent of employer respondents felt that their workers understood health and safety practices fully or to a large extent. However, when the same question was posed to workers, only 40 per cent of them agreed.

“This gap in perception creates the potential for accidents in the workplace to occur,” says Alison Campbell, principal research associate at the Conference Board of Canada. “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.”

Campbell says the research aims to raise employer awareness of the importance of literacy as it relates to their workers’ health and safety. This two-year project was funded by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, and included a literature review, national survey, interviews with stakeholders and case studies.

Ten companies across Canada participated in the workplace literacy improvement case study: Abbot Point of Care in Ottawa; Atlantic Health Sciences Corporation in Saint John; Bristol Aerospace in 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, Ont.

“We do know that workplace health and safety is a critical issue for Canadian employers, and they already invest quite a bit in health and safety capital investments and training,” Campbell says. About 10 per cent of Canadian employers’ training budgets go towards health and safety, she adds.

Campbell says that the confidence of employers about the level of literacy of their workers stem from the fact that many companies are unaware that they have a literacy skills issue.

Typically, companies would create health and safety manuals and documents that they would then communicate to their employees, without necessarily looking at the workers’ literacy skills that may hinder their understanding and implementation of the health and safety policies, she explains.

“We know from international survey results that foreign-trained Canadians lack the literacy skills they need to perform most jobs well, and that low literacy skills can hinder employees from understanding how to perform their jobs safely and also from understanding their right to refuse unsafe work,” she says.

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, the report says.

Two-way communication
One health and safety practitioner agrees that the issue of literacy is critical to workplace safety, but notes that the more important aspect of this is ensuring that the workers can communicate back to the employer about issues related to safety.

This is particularly true when language barriers impede that ability to communicate, says Alan Quilley, president of Sherwood Park, Alta.-based OHS consulting firm, Safety Results Ltd. “We have to constantly think about not just getting the message to them, but how do you get it back.”

When it comes to workplace safety, employers have done a good job in communicating the message to their employees in a manner that they can understand, says Quilley. The challenge is getting the workers to communicate and articulate their questions and ideas about workplace safety “because that is really when safety excels.”

“If you’ve got some questions or if you’ve got some process input that you’d like to have on how we’re managing that, that’s also pretty important to the safety challenge,” he says.

When employers don’t pay attention to the need for enabling workers to communicate their thoughts about workplace health and safety policies —hiring a translator, for example — then that’s when communication break down happens, increasing the risk of injury or accidents.

“That, I think is the common shortcoming in all of these studies and all of these results, where we’re focused on the delivery and not on the feedback. Communication is two-way and that is the big problem, Quilley says.

Seven steps
Campbell says the study did look at “broader definition” of literacy and looked at both communication and language skills. “So there’s understanding the policies, and then there’s being able to act on them in emergencies and things like that.”

As a course of action for employers, the Conference Board recommends looking at their health and safety policies from a “literacy lens”.

In particular, the Conference Board outlines seven steps to take as an organizational action plan:

•    Review past incidents through “a literacy lens”
•    Review organizational health and safety policies and practices
•    Examine policies and practices from the perspective of an individual with lower literacy levels
•    Brainstorm solutions to help users understand health and safety documents
•    Measure and track health and safety incidents and improvements
•    Recognize outcomes
•    Reward efforts to improve literacy skills.