Low Literacy Levels Can Lead to Accidents in the Workplace

Low Literacy Levels Can Lead to Accidents in the Workplace

14th April 2016

Here in the UK it’s reckoned that more than 5 million adults can be described as “functionally illiterate” which means that they have literacy levels at or below those expected of the average 11 year old.  This is despite the fact that many organisations are dedicated to improving literacy in both adults and children.  The National Literacy Trust is a non-profit organisation that works to improve reading, writing, speaking and listening skills in some of the most disadvantaged communities where as many as 40% of people experience problems with literacy.  The Trust campaigns tirelessly to make literacy a priority for politicians and parents in a bid to promote literacy across the UK.

Quick Reads is an initiative that has worked with both authors and libraries in order to address this problem.  Several popular bestselling authors have been involved with this, publishing short books that are easy to read for adults who experience challenges with literacy.  Quick Reads also works with schools, communities and libraries to help make Britain a more literate country.

On a worrying note, research shows that people with low levels of literacy often find employment in some of the most high risk industries such as construction, transport, manufacturing, agriculture and fishing.  These are industries that also tend to attract more male employees than female and it’s a well-known fact that in general men have lower levels of literacy than do women.  To make the problem worse, migrant workers who have a different first language than English also tend to find jobs in these high risk industries and, although they may be able to speak and understand English perfectly well, reading in English can present more of a challenge to them.

In 2012 the World Literacy Foundation published a report on the economic and social costs of illiteracy and discovered that employees with poor literacy are more likely to have accidents.  This puts themselves and others at risk and increases the burden on medical services while leading to higher levels of absenteeism and damaging long-term productivity.   

Employers need to be aware of the problems associated with low levels of literacy and consider whether their training, materials and methods of risk communication are fit for purpose and accessible to all.  Employers have a legal duty of care (under the Equality Act 2010) to make “reasonable adjustments” and ensure that the information they provide is in an accessible format. 

Using visual, non-verbal methods of communication, such as pictures, signs or learning materials  (such as pocket cards and DVDs) is one method of helping to get the messages across to those with low levels of literacy or whose first language is not English.  Canadian researchers discovered that when health and safety practices are communicated in a written format, a disconnect will occur if workers’ literacy skills are too low for them to read or comprehend the manual.

Here in the construction industry, health and safety is always a vital issue – we work in one of the most dangerous sectors in the UK.  This means making sure that health and safety information is fully understood is vital in order to protect the workforce.