Literacy: An Ignored Factor In Successful Training

Special Note: Before beginning I need to apologize for my absence.  It’s never a good idea for a blogger to take an extended vacation, and that’s exactly what I did……both literally and figuratively.  I heard from many of you, and want you to know that I’m back.  More than anything, I want you to know that I really appreciate your following and feedback.  Thanks!

Worker Literacy Affects Safety

The question of literacy is a much bigger problem that we may think.  Recently I came across 2 separate articles that address the subject, both referencing a new study by the Conference Board of Canada, “What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You:  Literacy’s Impact on Workplace Health and Safety”. This research report outlines the value—including direct and indirect benefits—of investing in literacy with the expected outcome of achieving higher levels of health and safety in the workplace.

Using an online survey, a broad cross-section of the workplace was questioned.  From management to workers, service providers to union reps, aboriginal people to recent immigrants, 319 surveys were returned and analyzed.

According to the report, “While respondents gave high ratings to the importance of literacy skills in the workplace, training to build these skills was not always available through their workplaces. Responding employers had a much higher level of confidence in workers’ understanding of health and safety policies (64%) than responding worker groups (40%). Non-employer respondents expressed a higher expectation that literacy skills development opportunities would enhance workers’ understanding of workplace health and safety.”

So What Does This Mean For You?

Establishing written safety policies and procedures, and then training accordingly should and often does improve safety.  However, the Conference Board study showed that the level of confidence in being able to actually perform according to the procedures is suspect.  At least those who would be expected to follow the procedures, the workers, felt that they needed more hands-on instruction.   The flaw in the logic is that when health and safety practices are communicated in written format, a disconnect occurs if workers’ literacy skills are too low for them to read or comprehend the manual.

“Being able to read and understand “most” of the material or to “get the gist” of it is not enough. Precious time may be lost or exacting steps may not be taken if instructions are not followed when or how they should. As a result, injuries may occur, lives may be lost, and property may be damaged. Low literacy skills represent a risk, then, to the practice of workplace health and safety.” The Study delineated several good solutions to the literacy and safety problem, however most were quite detailed and time consuming.  What can we do now to improve safety?
  1. Assume that your class has participants who have difficulty reading and comprehending the training content.  Provide ample opportunity for everyone to talk about the issue, procedure, situation and its importance.
  2. If there are language barriers, make sure to provide adequate translation assistance.
  3. Ask checking questions and make sure that you allow group discussion to determine the level of understanding by all.
  4. Practice, observe, comment, and ask participants to explain why they are doing the procedure or skill in a certain manner. (This method has proven quite successful with driver safety).
  5. Provide follow up discussion after the training is completed.  Ask supervisors to talk with their workers about the subject and to make sure there is understanding.

Done with care, training can be successful and we can be assured that all employees understand what is expected of them.  The literacy problem isn’t going away any time soon, so assume that you have a communication and understanding problem and plan accordingly.