Low literacy may place workers at risk

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Low levels of literacy among employees in New Zealand may have a significant impact on health and safety in the workplace, according to Katherine Percy, chief executive – Workbase.

The International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) revealed that around half (43-46%) of New Zealand’s employed population are below literacy level three. This means that they do not meet the minimum standard required to cope with the demands of work in our complex, modern society. The survey was conducted by the Ministry of Education in 1996 and involved around 5,700 adults.

The IALS also revealed that those industries with the highest proportions of workers with low literacy were those that had the highest rates of work-related injury claims, such as agriculture, manufacturing, and construction.*

The problem, according to Percy, is not with the general awareness of health and safety issues, but in understanding the details of requirements. “I’m sure there’s no worker in New Zealand that doesn’t understand health and safety’s an issue…but do they know how to isolate, mitigate, and mange risks?” Percy asked.

For her, there are three main problems. To begin with, having worked in hundreds of firms in New Zealand, Percy asserts that policy documents around health and safety tend to be very complex. “If people were given that document to read as the way to learn about health and safety, you can just about guarantee that they won’t be fully conversant with what’s expected of them,” she said.

Secondly, health and safety training is often too cursory to overcome the barriers associated with poor literacy and numeracy. And, thirdly, the Department of Labour should make the guidelines and documents that they publish more straightforward and accessible for front line workers and managers, taking into account the prevalence of low literacy levels.

 “We are absolutely confident if you went and did more digging around an accident investigation … you would find that the workforce that had been shoved through two hours of training, and given the manual to read, had no idea what their requirements were.” Percy said.

*This list is based on information from Statistics New Zealand regarding the highest number of work-related injury claims per sector (not including those in unspecified sectors) for 2011.

Key HR Takeaway:


  • It’s vital to be cognisant of the extent to which low literacy and numeracy levels impact health and safety in the workplace
  • Don’t assume that employees who have undergone health and safety training have understood everything – find out how much your employees have genuinely understood
  • Review health and safety resources and guidelines to ensure that they are appropriate for those with low literacy and numeracy


  • Roana Carran on 20/02/2013 2:17:00 p.m.

    The Department of Labour is not my most favourite subject but they have done some reasonable work with the Skills Highway programme. The programme was initiated by the Department of Labour (now Labour Group, Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment) in 2008 to champion the benefits of workplace literacy training and to connect New Zealand employers to organisations and resources that will help them. The programme transferred to the TEC in October 2012 and with help from the EEO awards it has raised this issue within New Zealand workplaces. There are some good (and free) resources available for companies and people starting to address this issue in their workplace. Visit www.skillshighway.govt.nz

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