Is illiteracy a big safety risk?

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%
Apprentices 25%
Technicians 23%
Administrative staff 17%
IT staff 13%

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.

Kevin Jones

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

HSE 2004 Operational Circular167/12

OSHA alliance on Hispanic workers

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

reservoir, victoria, australia

8 thoughts on “Is illiteracy a big safety risk?”

  1. Kevin, I just found your article. Better late than never! Your analysis and the associated comments add important depth to the discussion. Here is the 2016 update: Technology has made it even easier and cheaper to create online safety instruction with visual aids, including videos. Visuals are an accepted standard for instructional design. Even for those of us who read well, an instructional video is welcome and can fill important gaps in our understanding. Since we have the know-how, the question changes a bit: How can we convince companies to take the next step to upgrade training?

  2. One reader has emailled a link that illustrates a communication risk that was always going to become a reality in the small business sector and its response to the requirement to \”prove\” safety through documentation.
    OHS legislation often does not require documentation but proof of compliance is almost impossible without documentation. There is an assumption that the documentation will be sound but the link above illustrates the fragility of the assumption

  3. \’functional literacy\’ is an issue in many workplaces, particularly blue collar occupations. I have found that workers are often issued with written information, instructions and forms that they can barely make sense of because they simply don\’t have a grasp of the vocabulary used, or the skills to interpret tables for instance. A lot of the guides and advisory publications produced by the various OHS regulators, though intended to be written in plain English, do not make sufficient allowance for lacks in literacy.
    I recently had the experience of sitting with a successful local builder and going through some if these materials with him. It was clear from his reactions that my verbal explanations had made sense for the first time, of some important information in these publications, affecting his company\’s efforts to comply with construction regulations.
    As I watched the pennies drop, I wondered why there has been no attempt by the regulators tho back up their publications with interpretive audio-visual materials?
    I do applaud Worksafe\’s Scott Cam promotion, a step in the right direction, but still in the shallow end of the pond.

  4. Curiously within an hour of writing the article above, WorkSafe Victoria issued a media release relating to a prosecution where inadequate instructions were provided to a worker who then operated a telehandler. The incident

    \”…occurred in 2008 when a Mondello employee, an Indian national on a study visa, lost control of the telehandler and hit a truck driver – an employee of a company contracted to transport potatoes.

    The Mildura Magistrates’ Court heard that the Mondello worker was moving the unloaded telehandler to a different farm site after watching a five minute demonstration on how to operate it. The worker had never previously operated a telehandler and the demonstration was provided by another employee who had no formal qualifications or training to operate a telehandler, or instruct others how to use it.

    The Mondello worker lost control of the telehandler while attempting a turn, hitting the truck driver, who sustained several broken bones in his right foot, lacerations to his elbow and head, and was required to stay in hospital for a week.\”

    WorkSafe\’s Stan Krpan pointed out that

    \”All employees, including those whose first language is not English, need information and training to understand the risks involved in their work and enable them to do their job safely.

    “If a worker has limited English, employers may need to make an extra effort to ensure the worker is clear on the risks. This may simply involve taking a little extra time or involving a translator – which may be another worker.

    “Employers and supervisors also need to be aware that the language barrier may lead to a power inbalance in the workplace – workers with limited English may be less likely to question health and safety practices or speak up if they’re unsure.\”

  5. They say a picture is worth a thousand words and videos are so easy and inexpensive to produce, so literacy issues can be overcome with a bit of lateral thinking and practical application.

  6. Illiteracy in the work place is suicide, particularly in high risk areas. These days, when Knowledge Management, is fundemental to the survival of an organization, literacy is the backbone of that management.
    It is also the reason why, MNC\’s are looking at \’language standardization\’ as a way of reducing risk due to poor communication.
    Lack of literacy also effects diverse organizations, as cultural assimilation would be an issue!

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