Training/Incentives

Training a literacy-challenged workforce

June 2, 2014
The State of Western Australia is the largest federal division by area in Australia, and is the second largest country subdivision in the world.  The area of the state is 2.53 million square kilometres, and comprises one-third of the land mass of Australia. Western Australia is bigger in area than Western Europe and four times the size of Texas.

In mid-2013, the population of Western Australia surged to a new record of in excess of 2.5 million, with about 1,500 people per week (January 2013 estimate) arriving in the state capital, Perth, with a view to permanent settlement.

78% of West Australians live in the greater metropolitan area of Perth, and 92% in the southwest corner of the State.

The skewed population density in the southwest corner of the state is a contributing factor to the challenges faced by a state where the location of the resources can be up to three hours flying time from the main population centre. A significant proportion of the state’s workforce engage in Fly-In-Fly Out, or Drive-In-Drive-Out transportation to attend work, often incurring extended periods away from home (often exceeding two weeks or more), and the social dislocation that accompanies “remote” workplaces.

In 2012, 1.314 million West Australians were in the workforce and only 59,000 (4.3%) eligible persons were unemployed. 458,000 people (35%) worked in classical “high risk” industries — agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining (including oil and gas), manufacturing, power generation, construction and transport. With the exception of stress-related injuries, these industry sectors dominate workplace fatalities and accident statistics.

Communication: A core and continuing challenge

In 2008, the Industrial Foundation for Accident Prevention (IFAP) assisted Dr. Janis Jansz, from Curtin University, who conducted research into the skills required for Safety Advisors in Western Australia. Her research findings, published in the World Safety Journal, Volume XVII, 2, 2008 and entitled “Skills required for, and Education available for, Safety Advisors” highlighted the need for effective communication skills and an understanding of management principles.

And then sometime in 2010, publication by the Larkins’ – “You Know Safety, But Admit It ... You Don’t Know Communication” authored in 2007 by Larkin Communication Consulting (available on www.Larkin.biz) — arrived in Western Australia and seemingly went viral in our high risk industry sectors.

Essentially, the Larkins challenge the safety discipline with the same message issued by Cumming two decades earlier  — (in my words) “understand your audience and communicate at their level of understanding”. The impact of the Larkins’ work in my home state has been for many leading organisations to question the complexity of their management systems and the manner in which policies and procedures are written. Although these are terrific responses in their own right, given the demographic challenges faced by my state, I contend that a very important message has been overlooked.

On Page 5 of “You Know Safety, But Admit It ... You Don’t Know Communication” the Larkins provide an acute insight into the world of safety communication, and cite that only 4% of the U.S. population can understand the “average safety email”. The Larkins cite DuBay (I cannot verify the source at this juncture) but state that “Grade levels matter. The correlation between the grade level of the text and its comprehension is large (r=0.70).” 

But this “Grade levels matter” caused me concern. What is the “Grade” level of West Australians, and Australians more broadly?

The Australian Bureau of Statistics regularly (but not frequently) conducts an Adult Literacy and Life Skills (ALLS) Survey. The survey tests for 5 “Domains of Literacy” which include:

1. Prose literacy (the knowledge and skills to search, comprehend and use information from narrative texts including editorials, news stories, instructional materials and books);

2. Document literacy (the knowledge and skills to search, comprehend and use information from non-continuous texts, including forms, schedules, maps, tables and labels);

3. Numeracy (the knowledge and skills required to effectively manage and respond to the mathematical demands of diverse situations);

4. Problem solving (goal-directed thinking and action in situations for which no routine solution is available);

5. Health literacy (knowledge and skills required to understand and use information relating to health issues such as drugs and alcohol, disease prevention and treatment, safety and accident prevention, first aid, emergencies, and staying healthy).

In each domain, a skill level of 1 is the lowest and 5 is the highest. A skill level of 3 is regarded as the “minimum required for individuals to meet the complex demands of everyday life and work in the emerging knowledge-based economy”.

The most recent ALLS Survey was completed by 8,988 randomly selected 15 to 74 year old persons across Australia in 2006. The report is highly detailed, but my broad summary is that the data infers:

? 7 million (46%) Australians scored level 1 or 2 in prose literacy;

? 47% of Australians scored level 1 or 2 in document literacy;

? 53% of Australians scored level 1 or 2 for numeracy;

? 60% of Australians scored level 1 or 2 for health literacy; and

? 10.6 million (70%) Australians scored a 1 or 2 for problem solving.

Putting that into context, of the working age population in Australia: 1 out of 2 have insufficient prose literacy, document literacy and numeracy skills; nearly 2 out of 3 have insufficient health literacy; and more than 2 out of 3 have insufficient problem-solving skills (planning and reasoning abilities), to meet the complex demands of everyday life and work.

The report also highlights that the lowest scores are found in three segments of the total population: (1) the unemployed; (2) those that never completed year 12 (the final year of high school); and (3) those who have English as a second language.

And, some bad news for our friends in the United States, Australians outscored those from the U.S. on each of the 5 indicators. Although the authors urge caution in directly comparing the findings between countries, nonetheless, I would argue to those in the safety fraternity that the challenges in Australia and the U.S. have similar roots.

And so – to a profound, and yet very basic challenge, I think the jury has delivered its’ verdict: communication skills are undoubtedly a requisite in the safety professionals’ toolkit. But just how low do safety professionals have to go to ensure understanding of their safety message, and in so doing, is important technical information to be omitted or simply overlooked?

Perhaps a hallmark of safety leadership is an organisation that tackles the elephant in the room – improving the literacy and numeracy of its’ workforce as a foundation safety skill set.

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