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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Workplace Deaths Increasing in Alberta - Improved Literacy is Part of the Solution.

The recent death of two Chinese contract workers at the Canadian National Resource Limited Horizon oil sands project has caused an interesting set of reactions, responses and concerns.

There are calls for an inquiry and threats of work stoppages to review of immigration policy and temporary worker policy. Occupational Health and Safety officials are on the job conducting an investigation. The Chinese Canadian National Council is invoking shades of the Chinese workers and the building of the CPR. Condolences are being expressed and some serious soul searching about the alarming increase in workplace deaths in Alberta. We had 149 work related deaths in Alberta in 2006. There were already 27 such death in the first two months of 2007, putting us on track for our workplace death rate to double in 2007.

All of this is activity, concern and reflection is necessary and expected under the circumstances. There is another significantly related issue that needs to be considered as well. That is the issue of literacy capacity in the context of worker safety. In the case of the Chinese workers what resources did they have in the form of translation services? Did they have safety information and training provided in their own language? These are literary related questions.

Literacy levels are emerging as a major concern in Alberta because every able bodied person is working full tilt. In complex industrial society, having “able bodied” workers is like water is to soup. It is essential but insufficient in and of itself. You also have to have a set of skills and a literacy capability a critical skill to do these jobs these days. This is critical if for no other reason than personal and co-worker safety.

This is a national problem but one that comes into sharp focus in the over heated labour starved economy of Alberta. Our literacy levels in Canada are being taken for granted but that is a luxury we can no longer afford. Studies show that 40% of Canadians don’t have the literacy skills needed to meet the ever-increasing demands of our complex and knowledge-based society.

This translates into growing concerns over reading, numeracy and problem solving skills. As we become more global and interdependent we will become more aware of a need for cultural literacy too. Not everyone can learn to read but we can all do better about improving our skills in the full range of modern literacy demands.

Without adequate literacy capacity individuals are not keeping current on new methods and procedures, operational requirements and safety issues. The very long hours we now see as the new normal increases risk factors. That coupled with the elevated risks inherent in less skilled workers who are being thrust into more complex situations, is a recipe for more disasters like the recent deaths in the oil sands.

There is also a growing gap between the highly literate citizens and the insufficiently literate people in Canada today. It is a serious, social cohesion, citizenship, economic, productivity, and workplace safety issue too. The “fix” for this problem is also low hanging fruit for improving our economic productivity and global competitiveness. Studies show for every 1% increased in literacy rates we get a 1.5% permanent boost in GDP. That is about $3.5B increase in wealth creation just in Alberta. It is now obvious for reasons of personal safety and future prosperity we must improve our literacy rates across the board in Canada.