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Addressing Essential Skills Gaps in an OHS Training Program

Essential skills are the foundation for learning all other skills, and help people evolve with their jobs and adapt to workplace change. Some example of these skills are characterized as: reading text, document use, numeracy and team work skills. It has been found that workers with poor literacy and numeracy skills may find it difficult to understand and apply occupational health and safety (OHS) training, potentially resulting in injuries and illnesses. The Canadian Council on Learning notes that workers are reluctant to sign up for literacy training due to concerns about screening and the associated stigma1. In order to resolve this issue it is suggested to integrate essential skills into existing learning curriculums.

In a recent pilot study conducted at the Institute for Work and Health, a research team led by Dr. Ron Saunders modified a hoisting and rigging training program. The research team developed a modified version of the training program to address gaps in interpretation of documents and numeracy skills. The purpose of this study is to:

  • To determine the extent to which a redesigned curriculum that addresses essential skills gaps improves learning of the health and safety content and adherence to safe practices.
  • To understand the experiences of trainees and instructors involved with the redesigned program in order to improve the process of modifying OHS training programs to address gaps in essential skills.


The team found that learners who completed the modified training had significantly better post-training scores on a written test of course content than the learners who were given the usual training. This was after controlling for age, language, educational level, years of experience in construction, and years of experience in hoisting and rigging. The team also controlled for the pre-training scores on document-use ability; however, because many participants did not complete the numeracy section of the pre-training assessment, the team could not use scores from that section in the statistical analysis.

The team also conducted focus groups and interviews with 25 learners to explore their perspectives on their training needs.  These learners spoke about the tension felt between the pressure to be productive and work safely. Many of them spoke of the job insecurity they experiences as workers with 'low skills'. In discussing their numeracy skills, it was commonly mentioned that they use shortcuts such as estimations to avoid doing calculations such as trial

Results from that pilot study were so encouraging that the training centre involved in the project, will keep the essential skills components as part of its rigging and hoisting curriculum. It may even make similar changes to other training. View Essential Skills and OHS Training Guide.

The results of this study lead to the development of a guide that includes a 12 step process for embedding essential skills learning into OHS Training. This guide is available at no cost, and designed to be used by organizations that deliver OHS training programs/solutions to groups with low levels of essential skills2.