Workplace Literacy: The Threat to Worker Safety

By Bruening, John C. | Occupational Hazards, October 1989 | Go to article overview

Workplace Literacy: The Threat to Worker Safety

Bruening, John C., Occupational Hazards


For one out of every five adults in this country, this sentence is little more than a series of symbols that are difficult, if not impossible, to comprehend.

Millions of workers try to read safety signs, warning labels, and material safety data sheets every day, but understand little if any of the information presented. Whether they are immigrants with a limited grasp of spoken and written English, or Americans who have slipped through the cracks in the nation's education system and have limited reading or writing skills, illiterate workers are constantly exposed to dangers that their coworkers with a command of the language hardly ever face.

For the 20 percent of the U.S. population with poor reading and writing skills, the workplace can be a mysterious -- and dangerous -- place.

In January 1989, during Senate confirmation hearings on her appointment, Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole sounded the call to "wipe out illiteracy and enhance skills through basic education, training, and retraining." At that time, Dole also predicted that "the workplace of the future will have little use for workers who are illiterate, or functionally incapable of adapting to new skill requirements. We can't afford to keep graduating young men and women who can't read well enough on the job to follow instructions or understand safety warnings."

At her Senate confirmation hearings, Dole laid out four broad goals to reduce the level of illiteracy among U.S. adults. They were:

* Setting a national literacy goal.

* Enhancing literacy instruction in all training programs, with a particular focus on the Job Training Partnership Act.

* Making adult literacy programs available at, or near, the workplace.

* Exploring new, nonthreatening, nonstigmatizing ways to reach people, such as television programming, video disks, and computer-assisted instruction.

Dole and her colleagues face imposing odds in their war against illiteracy.

The Department of Education estimates that some 27 million American adults read at or below the fourth grade level. These people are considered functionally illiterate.

Immediately above that 27 million is an intermediate group with varying degrees of literacy skills. Paul Jurmo, senior program associate with the Business Council for Effective Literacy (BCEL), sees the spectrum as a ladder with gradually increasing skill degrees at each step.

"Midway up the ladder would be another category of people called marginally literate, with roughly a fifth through eighth grade skills level," says Jurmo. "That's about another 45 million people. That's a total of about 72 million people who read below the eighth grade level in this country."

Strictly defined, illiteracy is the inability to read or write, but most literacy and education experts indicate that the practical application of the term is more open ended.

"The definition of basic skills typically used by employers includes not only the ability to read and write but also computation, communication, and problem-solving skills," according to "The Bottom Line: Basic Skills in the Workplace," a joint publication of the departments of Labor and Education that identifies and analyzes workplace literacy problems in the U.S. The definition is based on a survey by the Department of Education of 101 executives from small-and medium-sized businesses.

Phyllis Osol Dykes, executive director of the Greater Cleveland Literacy Coalition (GCLC), agrees with Jurmo that a ninth grade reading level is the current "breakoff point" for an acceptable level of reading skills, but predicts that soon even that delineation may be obsolete.

"The term literacy is increasingly becoming a relative one," says Dykes. "There are many new jobs that are being created that are demanding a far higher level of competency than the ninth grade level. …

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