Inside Logistics

Learning curve

Safety and literacy: Limited language skills lead to accidents


January 11, 2011
by Tracy Clayson

MM&D MAGAZINE, NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2010: An investigator trying to get to the root cause of a workplace accident or disaster will always consider mechanical and human error first. If mechanical error is ruled out, the focus moves to the individuals and organizations involved, as well as the skills, training and overall commitment of the employer to safe work practices.

Another factor the investigator should definitely be considering is whether the accident happened because of someone’s inability to read.

A recent Conference Board of Canada study looked at the role of literacy as a barrier to understanding and performing safe work practices. The study found that organizations trying to reduce injury and accidents need to both assess employee comprehension of any health and safety training received, and determine the risks of employing staff with poor language and communication skills. The Conference Board’s What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You: Literacy’s Impact on Workplace Health and Safety also demonstrated that employers have more confidence in the effectiveness of safety training programs than do employees and labour groups.

In most companies, employees are given training and material about safety policies, but those guidelines may not be understood or followed as diligently as expected. Employers who do not verify how well employees grasp safe work practices may not realize the risks of poor responses to workplace incidents. Injury and accident risks are only two outcomes. Quality and compliance in areas including food production, construction and auto manufacturing are also vulnerable when there is a language competency deficit.

But how can employers address the language gap and its effects on safety and quality standards in the workplace?

To determine the scope of the problem, assess basic language comprehension in all your departments. You may also need to determine how aware your workforce is of your safety and compliance and quality standards programs.

To bridge any knowledge gaps, you must first get employees to commit to improving their level of aptitude. Then address language and literacy issues by making English as a Second Language (ESL) courses available and adjusting training material to meet the reading skill levels of your workers. These materials can be enhanced with diagrams, demonstrations and increased interaction between employers and employees as well.

Working newcomers whose second language is English are at the highest risk of injury and accidents because they lack basic knowledge of proper responses.

Recruitment standards can work to prevent hiring those with poor language comprehension, but in many areas of production and assembly scenarios, those with limited literacy skills may still represent the majority.

A 2005 CD Howe Institute study, Public Investment in Skills: Are Canadian Governments Doing Enough?, by Serge Coulombe and Jean-François Tremblay, showed that a one-percent improvement in literacy relative to the national average resulted in a 2.5-percent improvement in workplace productivity and a 1.5-percent increase in gross domestic product.

Programs such as Training for Transportation Vehicle Operation and Inspection, WHMIS, Transportation and Handling of Dangerous Goods, and the Food Safety Enhancement Program are extensive and probably exceed most workers’ level of knowledge. On the other hand, much of the safety training materials provides illustrations, video and presentation images to aid in understanding written procedures.

Ideally, workplaces will conduct emergency response drills, where the application of policies will be demonstrated and guidelines better explained.

It is not uncommon for some workplaces, government offices and public health facilities to display policies in other languages. While all companies may not be in a position to do the same, perhaps employees who are multilingual could be involved in translating training into their own native languages. Literacy competency goals can be made with employees and employers through further ESL courses, in combination with safety training—especially in a multicultural urban setting.

Most companies already have employees working with management on their joint health and safety committees to improve relations and communication. Mentoring programs are a great way to make literacy and safety a company-wide goal, too. Adding interactive workgroups can help identify those who may be falling behind on their literacy skills.

While training materials re-written in simpler English and the inclusion of photos and additional tools to demonstrate safe procedures may help to avoid overloading less literate employees, pre-employment language assessments, ongoing evaluation of comprehension and refresher safety training are essential.

The practical cost of investing too little in literacy improvement will be a rise in workplace injury claims. Since the long-term pain associated with any such surge is always substantial, it’s clearly time to improve employee literacy in the workplace. After all, it is likely to make going to work safer for all staff. It might even save a few lives.

Tracy Clayson (tracy@in-transit.com) is managing partner, business development, of Mississauga, Ontario-based In Transit Personnel.