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The Many Faces Of Risk

Supplier: Wholesale Safety Storage Australia By: Mike Styles – National Specialist Adult Literacy and Numeracy
22 October, 2018

A worker who cannot read the health and safety documentation is, by definition, not a safe worker. However, low literacy is often not an indicator of low ability or intellect.

Business risk comes in many guises, some of which are not readily observable.  The accountant will be mindful of some business risks and the Health and Safety officer will consider some others.  There are other business risks that are often ignored or underestimated.

Repeated international surveys confirm that a significant number of adult Australian employees do not have sufficient reading and writing skills to be fully effective employees.  This is a significant business risk for the company.  It is also a significant risk to worker health and safety.  A worker who cannot read the Health and Safety documentation is, by definition, not safe.

It is surprising that an adult who has been through the compulsory education system for at least ten years could enter adulthood and not be able to read, write and handle numbers effectively.  For up to 40% of adults this is the case.  This is not just an Australia issue.  In fact, Australia fares above the average against other OECD countries.  Low adult literacy and numeracy skills remains a stubborn problem that does not go away.  The reasons are many, from people who were educated in other countries, or who have English as a Second Language, to people who have learning differences and who simply did not engage with school.

“I hated school. I did my best to wag as often as I could.  My parents moved a lot because of my Dad’s work.  I got further and further behind.  I was always absent when there was a test coming up.”  So says Ricky, who is now not able to write much more than his own name.

So, how does low literacy impact the workplace?  Text is everywhere in the modern workplace.  Much of it is written by subject matter experts.  The information will be factually correct, but may not be readable for the audience it is intended for.

Here are some ways that low literacy could be affecting your workplace:

  • Some of your staff may not be able to read all the procedures to keep themselves safe in an emergency. An employee who had English as a Second Language once asked, “what is an evacuation point?”
  • When being part of a near miss or accident a worker with low writing skills will shy award from writing up and incident form or a near miss form, because they will not want their embarrassing literacy problem from being exposed.
  • When asked if they understand the Health and Safety documentation a person with low literacy will say “yes”, when they really mean “no”.
  • People with low literacy skills will shy away from answering the phone. They will be scared that their writing and spelling difficulties will be exposed.

What are the tell-tale signs of low literacy or numeracy?

  • Workers who will not write anything in front of others. Many will say “I left my glasses at home”.
  • People will say “I will do it at home where there are less distractions”.
  • Workers who get others to do any reading or writing for them because they are “too busy”.
  • Capable people who shun promotions – even though they could do a higher-level job – because they know they won’t cope with the written component of the job.
  • Workers who get others to do any reading or writing for them because they are “too busy”.

So, what can you do about it?

  • Accept that low literacy is often not an indicator of low ability or intellect. There are many reasons that people did not master reading and writing.
  • Let it be known to all your employees that it is OK to have a reading or writing problem and that they will not be penalised if they seek support.
  • If you suspect that any employee has a reading/writing spelling issue, please handle the issue sensitively. Their reading/writing problems will be something that they are likely to be deeply ashamed about.
  • Remember even staff in supervisory roles may have literacy problems that they have hidden for years, often supported by a partner/spouse at home
  • Review your health and safety documentation – not for accuracy – but for readability. Often technical experts or subject matter experts write in overly complex language.
  • There will be adult literacy support organisations in your community that will be able to provide professional support