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Conference speaker highlights safety hazards of workplace illiteracy

By Mari-Len De Guzman

[span id="photo-id" class="spec-value" style="font-size: 12px;"]WHISTLER, B.C. — The level of literacy of your workers could make a big difference in the safety of your workers, a speaker at the Canadian Society of Safety Engineering’s annual Professional Development Conference said.

In a session entitled, Training for Competency of a Marginally Literate Workforce, Glyn Jones, partner at EHS Partnerships Ltd. in Calgary, pointed out that workforce illiteracy is increasingly becoming a vital safety issue, with advancements in technology and increased diversity in the workplace.

“It is a complicated workforce,” Jones said. Different people will have different capacity to learn and with employees that are marginally illiterate, it is important that employers recognize the need to have different ways to communicate and deliver their programs to their workforce.

Literacy or illiteracy, Jones said, is an issue that employers and safety professionals have to deal with particularly when putting people in safety-sensitive functions.

In Canada, 48 per cent of the adult population are below the level needed to succeed at work, according to Jones.  Add to this the challenges of immigrant workers who may not have the necessary proficiency in English to effectively communicate and understand workplace procedures and policies.

Jones says that when training workers, employers should not just be able to deliver the communication to the worker, but have a way of assessing whether the worker effectively understood the communication and will be able to do what is expected of them.

“We need to continue ongoing education and training just to keep up,” Jones said. “The process by which you are going to keep your workers up to date needs to be carefully examined.”

One of the challenges for employers in trying to assess the literacy level of their workforce is the stigma associated with illiteracy. Most people don’t want the world to know that they have literacy issues, and so would typically not participate in any literacy or competency enhancement program an employer may offer.

Jones admits there is no silver bullet or one solution to the issue of illiteracy in the workplace. Each organization is different — the make-up of the workforce, the type of business they do and the environment in which they operate — and would, therefore, have varying ways of effectively approaching the issue.

It is important, however, that employers first identify and recognize whether there is an issue of illiteracy in the workplace, and determine what kind of literacy level — prose, document or numerical literacy — their workers need to be at, depending on their work function.

Document literacy is typically the most important type of literacy for workers. It is the “knowledge and skills required to locate and use information contained in various format, including job applications, payroll forms, transportation schedules, maps, tables and charts,” Jones said.

From a workplace safety perspective, document literacy means workers are able to take a written safety policy and procedure and use the information contained in it to be able to perform work safely.

While there may be various different ways employers can address literacy challenges in the workplace, Jones said there are four key success factors for any workplace literacy program:


  • program strategy, which is essentially the planning stage and making sure that the decision-making process is inclusive;
  • program operation, which involves designing the necessary program, choosing the right instructors and offering a mix of delivery methods;
  • program marketing, which involves selling your plan to your workers, engaging your supervisors and encouraging employee participation; and,
  • realistic program evaluation, which offers opportunity for continuous improvement.

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“Employee attitude will be key,” Jones said. “Effective literacy programs are really just about empowering your employees.”[/span]

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