Literacy Matters in the Workplace

Literacy Matters in the Workplace

21st January 2016

Being able to read and write is an essential skill for living in today’s busy world – after all, the written word is everywhere. Instructions, health and safety policies and procedures, signage – it’s vital to be able to read. Literacy is the term used to describe the ability to read and write and it’s one of the most basic skills taught in our schools, the very foundation of the education system. Low levels of literacy can be a contributing factor to accidents in the workplace, ill health and financial loss.

Here in the UK, there is still a significant number of adults who have issues with literacy with more than 5 million of us described as “functionally illiterate” which means their literacy levels are below those expected of an 11 year old. While low literacy is not the only reason for deaths, injuries, disease and accidents in the workplace, recent research reveals that there is a tangible link. For example, in 2012 the World Literacy Foundation reported that employees with poor literacy skills are more likely to have accidents. This puts them and their colleagues at risk, leading to higher levels of absenteeism and damaging long-term productivity while increasing the need for and cost of medical services.

Surprisingly research also shows that people with low literacy levels are more likely to find jobs in the higher risk industries like construction, transport, manufacturing, agriculture and fishing. These are industries that traditionally attract more male workers and it’s a proven fact that, in general, men have lower literacy levels than women do. Another worrying factor is that many adults in the workplace may have a different first language than their colleagues (migrant workers are a prime example here) which increases the risk of misunderstandings and mistakes.

Another contributory factor in accidents in the workplace may me colour blindness which is more prevalent among males than females. It’s been discovered that 7 – 10% of the global male population suffer from varying degrees of the red-green deficiency type of colour blindness and have trouble distinguishing between red and green which are two of the main colours used in OSH signage. Red and green have opposite meanings – green means it’s safe to go ahead while red means “stop” or denotes prohibition. The other two main colours used in OSH signs are yellow (the warning colour) and blue.

Employers need to be looking at their current education and training materials and their methods of risk communication to ensure that they are fit for purpose and accessible to all employees whatever their literacy level or mother tongue may be. The consequences of not getting this right can be fatal. If you want to ensure that communication is enhanced and accidents are kept to a minimum in the workplace then wherever possible use visual, non-verbal methods of getting the message across – pictures, signs, etc. According to researchers, there can be a disconnect when health and safety information and practices are communicated in written format if workers’ lack of literacy skills prevent them from reading or comprehending a manual or set of instructions.

Employers have a duty of care to their workforce, and ensuring that appropriate methods of communication are in place is vital to get the health and safety message across.