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The Importance of Literacy in the Workplace

by Frank MacDonald on June 14, 2016

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Remember in high school when you’d ask your teacher when knowing trigonometry would ever be useful in real life? But then you became a pool shark as an adult and suddenly it all made sense. Reading comprehension is sort of the same thing. Whether your nose is always in a book or you use books as doorstops, workplace literacy is an essential skill for workplace safety.
pool shark playing billiards

SOH-CAH-TOA is how I sock it to ya”

Nearly 3 million workers reported non-fatal injuries and illnesses according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In that same year, there were over 4,000 workplace fatalities.

An employee’s ability to read and understand safety literature and signs throughout the workplace is a benefit to the worker and the company. It not only increrases the level of safety in the workplace but it also enhances worker performance.


What’s the Value of Literacy in the Workplace?

You could create the most comprehensive safety program in the world but it won’t be effective if workers are unable to understand it. Pamphlets, safety check lists, and signage all rely on one thing: the worker’s ability to absorb the message. When that’s not possible, worker safety drops off.

There are 32 million people in the United States who can’t read, according to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy. 1 in 5 adult Americans read below a 5th grade level.

People with lower levels of literacy tend to find work in jobs with higher risk of injury or work-related illness. According to David Magee from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, these jobs, on average, attract more male workers and men are statistically more likely to have literacy issues than women.

It’s an employer’s duty to break down the barriers that prevent workers from fully understanding safety procedures and protocols. Presenting information in videos, pictures and other alternatives to written words improves levels of preparedness and avoids concerns of workplace illiteracy.
workplace literacy can be increased by signage that is readable by everyone


Literacy Skills in the Workplace:

Illiteracy isn’t necessarily about a lower level of education. A person can be highly literate in English, but functionally illiterate in French of Spanish. Jobs where even a few employees speak a different language should use the same level of care as any other workplace. Migrant workers, for examples, might not be proficient in your language. But typically have a higher level of risk on jobs.


What are literacy skills?

Literacy is traditionally defined as the ability to read, write and use arithmetic. But in more recent years has been expanded to include the use of language, numbers, images and computers.

Another important language barrier to keep in mind is dyslexia. Although a worker might speak and understand the language perfectly, the written word can pose significant problems for people who see letters, words, and sentences differently than the average person.
two workers talking in the office

“Some workers might try to disguise their impairments. Employers need to have keen observation skills.”


Workplace Literacy Isn’t Just About Reading:

Your ability to understand color associations is a part of workplace literacy. While it’s not a language per se, color blindness presents significant safety problems for the workplace. Our brains make subconscious connections with colors. For instance, red is most often used to indicate “stop” or to warn a worker about an immediate hazard. Green means “go” or that everything is OK. However, if a worker has a red-green color blindness, suddenly there’s an issue for this form of workplace literacy.

So while red and green are established as at-a-glance indicators of danger or safety, keep in mind that these colors won’t mean anything to a person who can’t see them — unless, of course, the employer takes additional steps to improve accessibility.

Where red and green are usually very effective at getting the attention of everyone who can see them, people with red-green color blindness will need additional suggestions. For instance:
stop sign with hand
Workplace literacy has a large influence on the safety of workers in every industry around the world. In workplaces where these accessibility issues exist, workers are at an extreme disadvantage.

A safety message is only as good as its ability to reach its target audience. Approach your safety campaign with the goal of ensuring every worker can understand it. This will improve workplace literacy no matter an employees level of literacy skills. According to the Conference Board of Canada it can also boost productivity.

Looking for other ways to teach workers about workplace safety issues? Download our top 10 compliance tips infographic now!

top ten compliance tips sheet

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