Reading danger: How poor literacy leads to accidents in the workplace

Literacy is the ability to read, write and understand a particular language. It is the foundation of our education system. Within the workplace there are subject or industry specific literacies such as health literacy, financial literacy, computer literacy and OSH literacy. In this article, which originally appeared in RoSPA’s OS&H Journal, David Magee discusses the correlation between low levels of literacy and workplace accidents, ill health and financial losses.

Accident Statistics

According to the International Labour Organisation:

  • internationally, every 15 seconds a worker dies from a work-related accident or disease and 153 workers have a work-related accident;
  • globally, an estimated 2.3 million people die every year from (reported) work-related accidents and diseases, and about 160 million people suffer from work-related diseases;
  • worldwide, there are 313 million (reported) non-fatal accidents;
  • the suffering caused by such accidents and illnesses to workers and their families is incalculable. In economic terms, more than 4% of the world’s annual GDP is lost as a consequence of occupational accidents and diseases.

In Great Britain, HSE statistics report:

  • 2 million people suffering from a work-related illness (in 2013/14)Closeup of ballpoint pen over a candlesticks stock chart (very shallow dof; focus on pen tip).
  • 142 workers killed at work (2014/15)
  • 78,000 other injuries to employees reported under RIDDOR
  • 2 million working days lost due to work-related illness and workplace injury
  • £14.2 billion estimated cost of injuries and ill health from current working conditions (2012/2013)

Although the literacy skills of workers and trainees is not the only reason for injuries, deaths, disease, accidents and financial losses occurring in the workplace, research has shown that there is a very real link. For example, in 2012 the World Literacy Foundation published a report on the economic and social cost of illiteracy. It found that “employees with poor literacy are more likely to have accidents…This puts themselves and their co-workers at risk, increases the need and cost for medical services, leading to higher absenteeism and damages long-term productivity”.


In the UK there are a significant number of adults who have literacy issues. For example, around 5.2 million adults in England can be described as “functionally illiterate” meaning they have literacy levels at or below those expected of an 11-year-old.

To add to the problem, research has shown that people with low levels of literacy tend to find employment in high-risk industries such as construction, transport, manufacturing, agriculture and fishing. These industry sectors also tend to attract more men than women, and research has shown that, in general, in ‘developed’ countries, men have lower levels of literacy than women. But even within these industry and gender sectors there are disparities.

Furthermore, a lot of the statistics and research on literacy levels do not look indepth at other literacy issues such as adults in the workplace who may have a different first language than that in their place of work, eg. migrant workers. Nor do they include consideration of other barriers to obtaining and understanding risk communication such as cognitive, auditory and vision impairment issues. For instance, the British Dyslexia website states that 10% of the population are dyslexic, 4% severely so.

Colour Blindness

It’s not just reading and writing that’s an issue, however. 7-10% of the global male population (and 0.5% of women) suffer, to various degrees, from the red-green deficiency form of colour blindness. This means they have problems distinguishing between red and green. These are two of the four main colours used in OSH signs. Red and green mean completely opposite things – green means ‘safe’ or ‘go’ and red means ‘prohibited’ or ‘stop’. (The other two colours mainly used in OSH signs are yellow (warning) and blue (mandatory).) .


What can I do?

Employers and educators need to ask themselves if their current OSH education, training, materials and modes of risk communication are fit-for-purpose and accessible to all, whatever an employee’s literacy level may be. Because if you are not getting it right the consequences can be deadly as the statistics at the beginning of this article show. Consider the use of visual, non-verbal methods such as pictures, signs or learning materials such as pocketcards and DVDs. These are all useful tools to get messages across to anyone with low levels of literacy or those whose first language is not English. Results from the Canadian study verify this. Researchers found that “when health and safety practices are communicated in written format, a disconnect occurs if workers’ literacy skills are too low for them to read or comprehend the manual”.

We all have a legal duty of care (under the Equality Act 2010 dutyholders must make ‘reasonable adjustments’ and ensure that ‘information is provided in an accessible format’) and moral responsibility to provide good education and information regarding OSH literacy. This means equipping people with the basic fundamentals in OSH literacy and making all stakeholders aware of barriers and solutions in the acquisition of OSH information.

This is an abridged version of an article by Dave Magee, which originally appeared in RoSPA’s Occupational Safety & Health Journal. For more vital health and safety guides, facts and advice, sign up to SafetyMatters, RoSPA’s free fortnightly newsletter and receive our collection of free original e-books!

David Magee is an English teacher who specialises in literacy and special educational needs. He is also a fully qualified health and safety and first aid trainer (MCIEH, techIOSH, GradIfireE, SIIRSM). He currently works at a vocational training centre in the Middle East teaching English and health and safety. For more information see

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