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What is OSH Literacy?
Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) literacy can be defined as: The degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, produce and understand basic OSH information and services needed to make appropriate decisions regarding Health and Safety at work or in work-related training.
Occupational Safety &Health (OSH) has its very own distinct meta-language. It also uses a lot of different shapes, signs, colours and symbols which have been standardized
by the International Standards Organisation (ISO) . Therefore it fulfils all the criteria to be recognised as a specialist literacy in its own rite. This literacy can become even more specific depending on the industry sector.
OSHliteracy.org is the world’s first and only dedicated organisation specifically raising awareness of OSH literacy. We are committed to making risk communications within the workplace or in places of vocational training ‘Accessible to All’. OSHliteracy.org is active in a number of projects aimed at raising levels of OSH literacy and safety awareness.
Why is OSH literacy awareness so important?
Every 15 seconds, a worker dies from a work-related accident or disease.
Every 15 seconds, 153 workers have a work-related accident.
An estimated 2.3 million people die every year from [recorded] work-related
accidents and diseases [twice the number of people killed in road traffic accidents
worldwide and more than the total number of deaths from Malaria and HIV combined!] More than 160 million people suffer from [recorded] occupational and
work-related diseases, and there are 313 million [recorded] non-fatal accidents per year. The suffering caused by such accidents and illnesses to workers and
their families is incalculable. In economic terms, the ILO has estimated that more than 4% of the world’s annual GDP is lost as a consequence of occupational accidents and diseases.’
Although the OSH literacy levels among workers and trainees is not the only reason for the high number of deaths, disease, accidents and financial losses occurring in the workplace, research has shown that there is a very real link between literacy levels and rates of
accidents and injuries: 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 (World Literacy Foundation, The Economic and Social Cost of Illiteracy, 2012). To compound the problem, research has also shown that people with low levels of
literacy tend to find employment in high-risk industries such as: construction, transport, manufacturing, agriculture and fishing. Furthermore, young people aged 16 – 24 account for more than 50% of workplace accidents and the vast majority of these occur within their first six months of employment or training. Most of these young people will have had no prior experience or education with OSH or OSH literacy, prior to entering the workplace.
The issue of functional illiteracy is not confined to developing countries. The OECD Global Survey of Adult Skills, 2013 found that: The results should be a concern to many
governments. In most countries, there are significant proportions of adults who score at lower levels of proficiency on the literacy and numeracy scales. Across the countries involved in the study, between 4.9% and 27.7% of adults are proficient at only the lowest levels in literacy and 8.1% to 31.7% are proficient at the lowest levels in numeracy. (http://skills.oecd.org/documents/SkillsOutlook_2013_Chapter2.pdf).
Therefore, simply translating risk communications into someone’s native language doesn’t necessarily mean that they will have the literacy levels needed to access them. Even in the birthplace of the English language, it is estimated that: Around 16 per cent, or 5.2 million adults in England, can be described as ‘functionally illiterate’.
The range of special educational needs which can contribute to employees and trainees not fully accessing risk communications is vast and comprises: linguistic, cognitive and physical issues. For instance the British Dyslexia Website states: Ten percent (10%) of the population are dyslexic; 4% severely so. (http://www.bdadyslexia.org.uk/about). The ‘Action on Hearing Loss’ website states that: 3.7 million [people in the UK with hearing loss ] are of working age (16 – 64) (http://www.actiononhearingloss.org.uk). In most Caucasian societies up to 1 in 10 men suffer from the red/green form of colour blindness – two of the main colours used in OSH signs (www.colour-blindness.com). In the UK, the average level of myopia is between 20% and 30%…Up to 90% of school leavers in major Asian cities are suffering from myopia – short-sightedness. (http://www.bbc.com/news/health-17942181). As we age, the lenses of our eyes become thick and stiff, making it harder to focus and see up close. This affects nearly 100
percent of people over age 45, according to the [US] National Library of Medicine (http://abcnews.go.com/Health/LivingLonger/story?id=1237603).
Economic, cultural and other barriers to educational development have also to be taken into account. A 2015 ILO report into global child labor found that it involves: i168 million children. More than half of them, 85 million, are in hazardous work.
- Asia and the Pacific still has the largest numbers (almost 78 million or 9.3% of child population), but Sub-Saharan Africa continues to be the region with the highest incidence of child labour (59 million, over 21%).
- There are 13 million (8.8%) of children in child labour in Latin America and the Caribbean and in the Middle East and North Africa there are 9.2 million (8.4%).
- Agriculture remains by far the most important sector where child labourers can be found (98 million, or 59%), but the problems are not negligible in services (54 million) and industry (12 million) – mostly in the informal economy.(www.ilo.org/global/topics/child-labour/lang–en/index.htm)
Unfortunately in may parts of the world girls are not given access to a proper education for social, religious and economic reasons. Many end-up being exploited and having to work in dangerous jobs in factories and farms dealing with chemicals and machines with no understanding of OSH literacy. For the same reasons, many males also do not have access to proper education before they enter the workplace. In addition, globalisation as well as great social and political upheaval mean that many migrant workers are entering into workplaces were they neither have the language nor literacy skills needed in their new workplace – for example the migrant workers in the construction sites of the Middle-East
Oshliteracy.org aims to make all stakeholders aware of all of these issues and to promote best practice in the education and delivery of risk communications so that they are accessible to all
Education and training:
‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish [safely] and you feed him for a lifetime.’
Although there is a lot of research and resources regarding other key life-skill literacies such as health, financial and computer literacy, incredibly, as yet, there is neither research nor resources into OSH literacy (I challenge you to find any). However, OSH literacy is
arguably more important than these other literacies. The consequences of not fully understand OSH communications can be devestating and far reaching (see statistics at top of page). We often hear from the industry sector on how we are not fully or better preparing young people for working life.
OSH literacy is an essential and transferable life-skill. It can be also used outside the workplace in everyday situations to help understand symbols and instructions on items such as household cleaning chemicals, electrical equipment, fire safety notices, transport, food and many other things besides.
The Québec City Protocol, the Berlin Declaration, and the Lisbon Charter are all
inter-governmental pledges to share and promote best practices in health and safety
education and training. They highlight a system that focuses on education about
health and safety and prevention from an early age, making training related to
occupational health and safety readily available and accessible, and by providing
on-going support and coaching for young adults in their first jobs.
The introduction to the ISO 8634 (the standardisation of international safety signs and symbols) states:
There is a need to standardize the system for conveying safety information so that it relies as little as possible on the use of words to achieve understanding. As a consequence of continued growth in international trade, travel and mobility of labour, it has
become necessary to establish a universal communications method for conveying safety information. Lack of standardization can lead to confusion and even accidents. Education is an essential part of any system that provides safety information.
Therefore, we all need to ask ourselves if current OSH education, training, materials and
other modes of risk communication are fit-for-purpose and Accessible to All.
OSHliteracy.org is a registered non-profit, voluntary organisation. ‘We confirm that
OSHliteracy.org has met all the requirements set-out in the Governance Code for
Voluntary and Community Organisations’. It is registered on the Governance Code’s
‘Register of Compliant Organisations’
OSH Literacy.org is also the first ever international safety organisation to gain membership (Affiliate) of Fire-Aid (www.fire-aid.org); a consortium of UK organisations dedicated to developing Fire Safety programmes and awareness internationally.
© & Intellectual property of Oshliteracy.org, J. David Magee 2015.