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Poor literacy a safety hazard in the workplace: Study

OTTAWA -- Canadian companies invest in occupational health and safety training and new equipment, yet they spend little on upgrading the basic skills and literacy of their workers, according to a new Conference Board report examining literacy's impact on workplace health and safety.

The study -- titled All Signs Point to Yes: Literacy's Impact on Workplace Health and Safety -- shows that employers spent 10 percent of their training budgets on occupational health and safety training, but only two percent when it comes learning and development on literacy and basic skills upgrading.

The Conference Board's survey research also reveals an inverse relationship between industries requiring a high level of health and safety and investment in literacy skills.

With the exception of the wholesale and retail industries, the primary and construction industries spend the least amount per employee on developing literacy and basic skills.

Four in 10 Canadians do not have the
literacy skills to function properly on the job

Transportation and utility sector spending on literacy and basic skills training ($4 per employee in 2006) is also a fraction of that spent in industries such as information and communications technology ($32 per employee) and financial services ($13 per employee).

Some sectors are trying to raise literacy levels -- the Construction Sector Council, Canadian Trucking Human Resources Council (CTHRC), which also claims there's a correlation between literacy and safety risks.

Literacy issues are common in trucking. Given the shortage of qualified professional truck drivers, it's tempting for fleet managers and dispatchers to look the other way when they recognize signs that a driver may have trouble reading or writing.

The issue is further complicated by the influx of immigrants who are skilled drivers and literate in their native tongue but not English or French.

"Low literacy skills in the workplace do more than just threaten an organization's productivity and competitiveness -- they also put workers' health and safety at risk," said Alison Campbell, senior research associate, Organizational Effectiveness and Learning.

International survey results show that more than four in 10 Canadians in the working-age population do not have the literacy skills needed to perform most jobs well.


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