Complex WHS documents — a barrier to worker safety

Analysis

Complex WHS documents — a barrier to worker safety

Health and safety policies and procedures that contain highly complex and overly formal language could be misinterpreted by employees, affecting their ability to work safely, regulators and employers have been warned.

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Health and safety policies and procedures that contain highly complex and overly formal language could be misinterpreted by employees, affecting their ability to work safely, regulators and employers have been warned.

study of 466 workers (including approximately 86 supervisors) from manufacturing, warehousing, hospitality and other businesses was undertaken by NZ-based adult literacy specialists, Workbase, which identified ‘significant gaps’ in the workers' understanding of work health and safety information, documentation and paperwork.

Confusion over language

Overall, two in three employees (63%) did not fully understand the written information in their employer’s policies and procedures, and these documents were least understood by employees in manufacturing and distribution companies.

The consistent use of ‘unfamiliar words’ (eg ‘horseplay’, ‘rough handling’), as well as ‘specialist’ and ‘formal’ WHS vocabulary (eg ‘visible’, ‘maintenance’, ‘appropriate’, ‘sustain’), was nominated as a cause.

Documents that mirrored the language used in legislation, regulations, codes of practice and other guidance documents provided by government agencies were also a source of confusion for employees, because they often contained ‘dense, indirect and complex sentence structures’ that required ‘reading between the lines’.

Most documents were beyond the understanding of — and therefore open to misinterpretation by — employees who spoke English as a second language, and by people with lower literacy skills. Furthermore, members of this group were unlikely to have the confidence or language skills to ask for an explanation when they did not understand something.
 
Of the supervisors, 84% had high or middle level literacy skills, and those with lower reading skills were mostly in manufacturing, and warehousing and distribution.

Inaccurate hazard reports

Of the 226 employees who were asked by Workbase to complete their employer’s hazard report form for a hypothetical hazard, one in five (19%) could neither complete the form nor include all of the vital information.

More than one-half (54%) were able to convey essential ideas but with some limitations, such as missing information and lack of detail, because they did not understand the form’s purpose and intended audience, or why the required details were important. As a result the information could not be relied upon without further clarification.

Only 20% of employees were able to accurately complete the form. Members of this group wrote fluently and were able to communicate effectively about hazards. They understood the form’s purpose and intended audience, and could adjust their writing style and structure to ensure appropriate and complete information was provided.

Supervisors or team leaders made up 25% of the employees assessed for completing a hazard form report. Only 30% of supervisors and team leaders were able to accurately complete this form.
 
Call for easier-to-read docos

Workbase said their 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.

‘There are opportunities for government agencies to support businesses by modelling health and safety documents that are easier to read and advising on ways to address the underlying literacy skill gaps that affect the majority of adults in the workforce,’ Workbase concluded.
 
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