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Research shows skill gaps put NZ employees at risk

New health and safety research shows skill gaps put NZ employees at risk

A New Zealand study has found that most employees are being put at risk because they don’t fully understand their workplace’s health and safety information, documentation and paperwork.

The researchers say this has significant implications for regulators and employers’ efforts to keep people safer while at work, as outlined in the recently released WorkingSafer blueprint.  Every year more than 200,000 New Zealanders are seriously harmed and more than 100 are killed in workplace accidents. 

The study of 466 employees in 23 manufacturing, warehousing, hospitality and other work places was conducted by adult literacy and communication specialists, Workbase.  It involved showing employees a sample of their company’s core health and safety documents and assessing what they could understand of the content.

The majority (65% overall, 70% in the manufacturing sector) did not fully understood written information about their employers’ health and safety policies and rules, hazard information, and safety procedures.  Furthermore, 80% of employees could not accurately complete a hazard report form.

The study also analysed the 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.  Many documents also used unfamiliar vocabulary, which caused additional difficulties for employees with English as a second language.

Workbase’s Chief Executive Katherine Percy says the study’s findings have serious implications for workplace safety: “The Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment’s recent Independent Taskforce Report on Workplace Health and Safety identified low literacy and poor communication skills as being an issue, particularly in higher risk workplaces, and our study backs this up.

The WorkingSafer blueprint also identifies worker participation and engagement as being essential to strong safety performance, and notes that there are inconsistent levels of worker engagement in workplace health and safety issues.

“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.  It is difficult – if not impossible – to engage employees in health and safety if they can’t understand the information they are being given.”

Ms Percy notes that, although supervisors’ literacy levels are generally higher than those of employees, 19% of supervisors also struggle to read and complete health and safety information and paperwork.  This affects their ability to convey important health and safety information to their teams.

The study’s findings suggest that little will be achieved by providing employees with more health and safety information or guidance documents, or by increasing hazard and incident reporting requirements.

Reducing New Zealand’s workplace accident and death rates requires a higher priority to be placed on making health and safety documentation easier to understand.

This is important because the study showed clearly that many firms have modelled their in- house health and safety documents on the 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 Ms Percy.

She noted that the Government’s new WorkSafe agency was a step in the right direction but agreed with calls by the Employers and Manufacturers Association and others that a higher priority needed to be given to training.

“The proposed legislative framework includes a worker participation model that aims to facilitate better levels of participation and help workers to have the knowledge and accountability to keep their colleagues safe.

“Achieving this will require regulators and employers to ensure their health and safety documents are much easier to understand.  More resource also needs to be put into developing training that develops employees’ health and safety-related vocabulary, literacy, knowledge and skills.

Note to editors:  Click here to view the research, or visit


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