Researchers in New Zealand say many workers are put at risk because they do not fully understand their employers’ safety and health information, documentation and other paperwork.
Workbase, a New Zealand company providing employee training, adult literacy/numeracy and communications services, worked with 466 employees, including more than 80 lead hands, team leaders or supervisors, in 23 manufacturing, warehousing, hospitality and other workplaces to determine their understanding of their companies’ core health and safety documents.
“The majority—65 percent overall and 70 percent in the manufacturing sector—did not fully understand written information about their employers’ health and safety policies and rules, hazard information and safety procedures. Furthermore, 80 percent of employees could not accurately complete a hazard report form,” says Workbase.
Another finding from the study was that 19 percent of supervisors also struggle to read and complete health and safety information and paperwork. That affects their ability to convey important health and safety information to their teams.
The study also looked at companies’ health and safety documents and found that they were “consistently very complex in nature and used dense, indirect and specialist language that was not known by many employees in the study (and required reading between the lines).”
Many documents also used unfamiliar vocabulary, which caused additional difficulties for employees with English as a second language.
Safety vocabulary words that created confusion for many workers included: accountabilities, adversely, applicable, best practice, caustic, competence, compliance, condemned, consumption, designated place, fragment, eliminate, horseplay, inadequate, incident, legislation, limbs, mindset, obstructed, orifices, notification, practicable, prohibited, sustain, significant hazard, unauthorized, and visible.
Workbase’s Chief Executive, Katherine Percy, says the study’s findings have serious implications for workplace safety.
“The study suggests that employers could be doing more to ensure that employees understand the specific health and safety processes and policies that they are expected to follow,” says Percy. “It is difficult, if not impossible to engage employees in health and safety if they can’t understand the information they are being given.”
The study showed that many companies have modeled their in-house health and safety documents on formal language provided in official government documents.
“Regulators and employers therefore need to review their health and safety information and communication and make health and safety documents more relevant for the significant number of employees who lack the extensive formal technical vocabulary needed for health and safety compliance,” says Percy.
New Zealand, the United States and Canada all have comparable literary rates, with an estimated 99 percent of people ages 15 and older able to read and write. But being able to read and write does not mean that workers can understand everything they read or hear in the workplace.
If this study’s findings have you wondering how well your workers grasp the vocabulary, signs, and documents used in your workplace, it might be beneficial to write out a few of the misunderstood words used above and give your workers anonymous comprehension test. Then, if the results point to a lack of understanding, you need to simplify the terminology and instructions used.