Poor workforce literacy impacts workplace safety

Literacy is a major impediment to workplace productivity and safety. A survey of 400 companies across the manufacturing, construction, services and mining sectors by Australian Industry Group (AI Group) has found that 93 per cent identified a wide range of impacts on their businesses due to a low level of literacy and numeracy skills.

Workplace injuries and unsafe practices owing to poor literacy and numeracy skills was recorded across all industries with small business (6.3 per cent) and the services sector (5.1 per cent) having the greatest impact.  

The most significant business impacts were inadequate completion of workplace documents and reports (21 per cent), time wasting (17.7 per cent) and materials wastage (11.5 per cent).

The positive link between level of literacy and numeracy (LLN) and business productivity and safety is clear. Strengthening the foundation skills of our workforce must be a priority if Australia wants to lift its game and stay competitive.

Literacy and numeracy competence should be a component within a company’s Occupational Health and Safety (OH &S) training program. A clear understanding of safety processes is key to workplace safety. How else can we keep our workforce safe from injury?

In the automotive industry for example, insurance companies require staff to have specific skill sets before they can repair and service hybrid vehicles due to the high voltage and possibility of electric shocks.

In the construction and manufacturing industries, confined space entry induction training protects workers on a daily basis, allowing them to carry out regular maintenance and repairs safely.

They learn to identify the hazards present in a work situation, assess the risks and determine what precautions they have to take. They learn to ask themselves key questions: Does the air need to be tested before entry? Do I have the right equipment and lighting for the job? Do I have sufficient experience of the type of work to be carried out? They learn about safety processes such as in lock-out procedures where specific equipment is closed off, padlocked and tagged by only one person and cannot be re-opened by anyone else.

Language competency is a sensitive issue. While it is easier to recognise the needs of those from non-English speaking backgrounds, it should not be assumed that all English language speakers are literate. More importantly, language competency does not relate on the ability to learn. Consultations with your workforce can save time and money by first identifying the range of language needs and preferred forms of communication. Cultural awareness on related barriers that may impact communication must also be considered.

The manufacturing company Astron Plastics is a prime example of a customised literacy training program delivered by Chisholm Institute in the workplace. The training program specifically focused on the Language and Literacy of a primarily Vietnamese speaking workforce with the main motivation of the program designed to assist in the direct communication with Astron Plastics management team. The program was a success, not only assisting with communication in the workplace, but having the added benefit of assisting with the general safety awareness of staff. Staff were better able to read through equipment and machine manuals, ensuring there use in a safe and appropriate manner.

An additional benefit of the training was the added value it gave to the personal lives of employees, making daily tasks outside of work easier as a result of improved literacy and comprehension skills. The success of the training was two pronged with benefits being seen by both the business and the individual students.  

Industry will benefit from customised workplace training programs where specific needs relating to literacy and workplace safety are identified and addressed. We start with a risk assessment in current systems and processes, followed by the development of a training plan and program to deliver measurable results. Hands-on learning at the workplace has proven to deliver excellent results.

As Craig Brittle, Chisholm Institute’s Manager of Automotive and Supply Chain, explained; “Literacy and numeracy skills build confidence, enhancing greater communication and participation in training. The effectiveness of our workplace Occupational Health & Safety programs increases with greater understanding and confidence in applying this knowledge on a day to day basis".