In a couple of years all Australian States will probably have OHS laws which require active consultation on workplace safety matters. But how effective will the consultation be if a noticeable part of one’s workforce struggles with literacy?
For many years OHS included a gentle and steady push for OHS information to be provided in Languages Other Than English (LOTE). Many OHS regulators had Codes of Practice providing guidance on how to communicate safety issues to workers who cannot speak or write English.
The Australian Industry Group (AIGroup) has been running a project on improving workplace literacy for some time. AIGroup sees literacy as a major impediment to productivity and safety. The ACTU sees the risks posed to one’s safety predominantly. On 26 May 2010, AIGroup’s CEO Heather Ridout wrote in The Australian newspaper (not available online) about the project and the workplace risks. A report from the literacy project has found that “low levels of literacy and numeracy were an issue for”:
|Labourers and process worker||45%|
These statistics are cause for concern and Ridout is right in pointing out that the
“… implications for business are enormous: safety risks are increased when signs and safety information can’t be read: productivity is reduced and waste is increased when standard operating procedures and other work instructions can’t be fully understood….”
But this is a very Western approach to workplace safety communication and one that may not have as big an impact on safety as one would first think.
A major element of any safety program is a high amount of signage. Signage is designed to indicate a hazard or a work practice in such a way that one’s literacy level is irrelevant to the process of communication. Workplace safety is full or effective signage that, purposely, has no words. Words are likely to increase the signs’ effectiveness but this is not always the case and should not be automatically assumed.
The statistics quoted should also be interpreted cautiously. The figures quoted above are, largely, blue-collar and administrative occupations. Sample size of the survey is not quoted and there are many other occupations in Australia than those listed. Ridout then mentions the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data that estimates
“…four million people in the Australian workforce do not have literacy and numeracy skills needed to meet the demands of the workplace. This equates to just under 50 per cent of all workers.”
One cannot apply the project survey percentages to the four million ABS figure because not all occupations of all company employees are listed. Much more analysis should be applied to the original ABS and AIGroup survey data to determine the true extent of illiteracy and innumeracy but, importantly, the lack of these two skills does not automatically equate to the level of safety in the workplace or safety skills of the workers.
An employer’s obligation to provide a safe and healthy working environment does not include the requirement to have a literate and numerate workplace, although this is an attractive option. One should not hesitate with safety initiatives simply because the workforce struggles to read and write English, indeed, one could argue that any delay could be interpreted as unsafe.
Many organisations have a strong supportive safety culture that acknowledges the literacy deficiencies and works around them. In fact, some companies have a strong safety culture because the workforce largely does not speak English. One workplace I visited reflected the multicultural mix of the suburbs surrounding the factory and hardly anyone had English as their first language. Safety was communicated by supervisors, work colleagues and, often, relatives in the language that the workers understood. It was often difficult for the English-speaking managers to be comfortable in this environment and it often meant you had to provide work instructions to a worker with their cousin standing next to them on the production line but the safety communication was undertaken successfully.
There is a risk in seeing low levels of literacy and numeracy as a major reason why training is ineffective or standard operating procedures are not followed. This applies a narrow understanding of communication and this could be particularly so on the issue of workplace safety.
Many Australian OHS regulators have had Codes of Practice on occupational information in LOTE , many, since 1985. Noticeably, Safe Work Australia has not listed LOTE as an issue in its program of draft Codes and Regulations.
The OHS laws of Australia’s future will include obligations to consult with staff and others about safety. In some circumstances, safety consultation is more successful when it is provided in languages other than English and sometimes, when it is in no spoken language at all.
More information on these issues could be from many British websites, US sites involving Hispanic workers and through some of the work undertaken in the Asian region by some of the industrial safety NGOs. There is a lot of information to choose from. A random selection is below
OSHA guidance notes in Spanish
WorkSafe Victoria’s Communicating occupational health and safety across languages – Compliance Code
European Agency for Safety and Health at Work change the language of the entire website