What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You: Literacy’s Impact on Workplace Health and Safety

A. Campbell
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
The Conference Board of Canada
Publication Year
Resource Type
Number of Pages

This informative and important report from Canada summarizes the results of a two-year research project that examined the benefits and impacts of literacy and language skills on health and safety in the workplace. Various methods were used to collect qualitative and quantitative data. A literature review demonstrates the critical relationship between literacy and language skills and a healthy and safe workplace. A national survey, with 319 respondents, was administered to obtain respondents’ views on the importance of literacy skills and workers’ understanding of health and safety policies. Responding groups included workers, employers, labor, and service providers. Of interest is the finding that employers had a much higher level of confidence in workers’ understanding than any of the other responding groups. Respondents provided real examples of risks or low literacy or language skills, including 1) chronic and occasional misunderstanding of the health and safety information, 2) an inability to use, or the misuse of, equipment or procedures, and 3) individuals not following established procedures. 

Industry cost data showed a relationship to low literacy. Direct costs include time away from work, compensation, and continuation of benefits. Indirect costs include costs associated with cleanup, repair or salvage. Administrative costs include management time and effort. Also, the employers’ reported loss of productivity and legal costs.

In addition, ten Canadian workplace literacy and learning programs that had experienced success with their programs in the past were studied and analyzed to identify good practices. The programs represented diverse industries, geographic locations, and size of organizations. Each company reported health and safety benefits from their workplace literacy and learning programs. Productivity rose; one program went a year without a single accident.  Some tracked the investments and cost savings of health and safety benefits.  All of the managers report a strong, shared commitment to investing in workplace literacy programs to impact the health and safety of the workplace.

This report shows that businesses can realize health and safety benefits from programs that are developed to improve workers’ literacy and language skills. Studies such as this one can motivate employers, organized labor, individuals, workforce development partners, and educators to invest more in workplace literacy program development.

What the experts say

This document presents a wealth of evidence related to the why’s and how’s of using worker education to improve the safety and health of workers with limited literacy and/or language skills. The report takes the often-superficial discussion of “the need for a well-skilled workforce” to a higher, more thoughtful, specific, and informed level. For example, the report cites the various factors that impact worker safety and health, such as policies and procedures, how they are communicated, and how they are monitored and enforced. The report also shows that there is no single “solution” to ensuring that lower-literate workers understand workplace safety and health procedures.

(Folinsbee,S & Jurmo, P. 1994).

Caveats: The resource is a persuasive document written for employers to encourage them to invest in literacy for their workers by identifying the direct and indirect impacts and benefits on health and safety. However, the resource is based on the assumption that a workplace intervention on one factor (literacy instruction) will affect the health and safety of the workplace. Other factors (a drop in demand for product, new governmental regulation, corporate policy changes, etc.) may confound the effects of the literacy intervention. The limitations to the survey are identified, including the fact that it was offered only in English so that French speaking employers may be heavily represented among the respondents.

Methods the resource used to collect and analyze the data for the research: A National Survey of targeted groups of people but not individuals; 319 respondents were obtained representing workers, unions, management, and service providers.

Case Studies including in-depth interviews with 10 companies that had successful workplace literacy programs in the past were conducted. These data were analyzed to identify potential good practices that could be replicated by other programs.

A comprehensive literature review revealed data to build a case for the connection between literacy, health, and safety in the workplace.