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Poor literacy levels a safety hazard for Canadian workers


October 2008 - Canadian organizations invest heavily in occupational health and safety training and new equipment to protect employees, yet they spend little on upgrading the basic skills and literacy of their workers, according to a new Conference Board report examining literacy’s impact on workplace health and safety.

Conference board survey data has shown that employers spent 10 per cent of their training budgets on occupational health and safety training. But respondents said they spent just two per cent of the budget for organizational training, learning, and development on literacy and basic skills upgrading.

“Low literacy skills in the workplace do more than just threaten an organization’s productivity and competitiveness - they also put workers’ health and safety at risk,” says Alison Campbell, senior research associate, organizational effectiveness and learning, for the conference board.

“If workers can’t understand health and safety regulations provided to them, or if they can’t understand their rights to a safe workplace, there is an increased risk of incidents and injury.”

International survey results show that more than four in 10 Canadians in the working-age population do not have the literacy skills needed to perform most jobs well.

The conference board’s survey research also reveals an inverse relationship between industries requiring a high level of health and safety and investment in literacy skills. With the exception of the wholesale and retail industries, the primary and construction industries spend the least amount per employee on developing literacy and basic skills. Transportation and utility sector spending on literacy and basic skills training ($4 per employee in 2006) is also a fraction of that spent in industries such as information and communications technology ($32 per employee) and financial services ($13 per employee).

Some sectors are trying to raise literacy levels - the Construction Sector Council, Canadian Trucking Human Resources Council and the Wood Manufacturing Council have initiated programs to ensure that workers thoroughly understand common job hazards and basic safety practices.

This report, All Signs Point to Yes: Literacy’s Impact on Workplace Health and Safety, outlines the preliminary results of a two-year Conference Board research project, “What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You”, supported by Human Resources and Social Development Canada.

For more details about the report, visit

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