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Workplace Health And Safety Training Needs To Be Better

Workplace Health And Safety Training Needs To Be Better

A workplace literacy expert is calling on the Department of Labour to do more to ensure that health and safety training is adequate and fit for purpose.

Katherine Percy - Chief Executive of adult literacy, numeracy and communication support provider, Workbase – says that workplace health and safety training is often ineffective because around half of New Zealand’s workforce has literacy and/or numeracy gaps that affect their ability to manage the more complex demands of health and safety in the workplace.

“Literacy issues make it difficult to reduce workplace accidents because people often don’t fully understand the signs and labels, material safety data sheets, or the health and safety training they receive and are therefore unable to put that knowledge to use”.

“As a result, they may find it difficult to complete hazard reports, or to correctly fill in health and safety incident forms that provide valuable information to employers and the authorities,” she says.

Every year more than 200,000 New Zealanders are seriously harmed and more than 100 are killed in workplace accidents. The Department of Labour has set targets to reduce workplace accidents and is also conducting a strategic review of the workplace health and safety system. The review’s recommendations are due to be given to Government in April 2013.

Ms Percy says the Department has identified the need for reliable health and safety data, and better access to it, but this will not happen unless training is improved because workforce literacy issues are compromising many employees’ ability to report accidents, near misses and hazards. Employees need to understand the underlying concepts, their responsibilities for health and safety and have strong communication skills and confidence to speak up about unsafe equipment or to complete incident reports.

She notes that the changing nature of New Zealand’s workforce means that more employees may not have English as a first language. They may also have different cultural expectations that affect, for example, their willingness to speak up about potential workplace hazards or to seek clarification about instructions. Training therefore needs to address these issues too.

In order to be successful, health and safety training needs to better match the workplace demands and the employee skills that are necessary for good health and safety practice.

“At present most training does not allow enough time to develop the required knowledge and skills. This issue is made worse by the fact that most written health and safety materials are complex and technical,” says Ms Percy.

Health and safety understanding could also be assisted by reviewing health and safety resources and guidelines to ensure that they meet workforce needs and are appropriate for people with low literacy and numeracy levels.

Ms Percy says two recent American studies show how workplace health and safety are adversely affected by poor communication practices, poor health and safety documentation and training, and low literacy and language levels amongst employees.

“We are hearing the same things anecdotally in New Zealand and there is a need for research in this field. This will provide valuable information about the actual level of understanding in workplaces and the best kind of interventions for improving employees’ understanding about good health and safety practices.”

Ms Percy notes the importance of the both the regulator and employer’s understanding the extent to which low literacy, numeracy and language skills impact upon health and safety in workplaces.

“Once the impact of low literacy skills is recognised, steps can be taken to help managers and employees to build the critical knowledge and skills needed to improve the effectiveness of health and safety training.

She says it is vital that employers avoid assuming that employees who have received health and safety training and/or instructions actually understand what they have been told.

“Taking the time to actively check what people actually know and understand could help to prevent a workplace injury or death.”


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