Poor literacy among workers in England continues to pose a health and safety headache for employers, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health has warned.
More than a million people in England have an estimated reading age equivalent to that of a seven-year-old.
To mark International Literacy Day last month, IOSH urged businesses not to assume written health and safety instructions would be understood by every worker.
Employers and managers needed to be sure employees fully understood instructions before letting them get on with work, and to encourage workers not to be embarrassed to ask questions if they did not understand.
“Being able to read is something many of us take for granted. But there are many people in the workplace with low levels of literacy, which means we must not just rely on written information or even verbal instructions,” said IOSH president Nattasha Freeman.
“There’s also been a huge increase in workers who don’t speak English as their first language, and we have to make sure we are able to communicate, particularly on health and safety, with these members of staff,” she added.
“Employers need to make sure they put plenty of effort into their communications with staff on health and safety – pictures can often replace a thousand words and demonstrations can really help to aid understanding,” said Freeman.
“Failing to get health and safety messages across could be deadly for your employees, for others who come into contact with your business and, given the current economic climate, for your organisation,” she added.
Freeman reiterated that employers had a legal duty to keep employees healthy and safe at work, which included communicating health and safety policies effectively to them.
Employers should always carry out induction programmes with new employees, and consider funding literacy training as part of their staff development programmes, she said.
“With the rise of occupational health problems, such as musculoskeletal disorders, stress and asbestos-related diseases, it’s also important to check employees can recognise symptoms of ill-health, and know what to do about a health problem,” Freeman said.