A recently released Ontario research paper has found construction worksite safety can be improved by incorporating training in essential skills, such as numeracy and document use, into a trades training program.
The Institute for Work and Health (IWH) team that undertook the research in collaboration with the Toronto-based Labourers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) Local 506 Training Centre and other partners including the Infrastructure Health and Safety Association (IHSA) worked with trainees in LIUNA’s hoisting and rigging program.
Principal IWH investigator Ron Saunders of the University of Toronto explained modification of the training program resulted in improved results in the stream of workers who took it, with statistically significant results even though the number of trainees studied, 40 in total, was small. As a result of the study, LIUNA has committed to using the modified program and a guide is being developed to be offered to other training organizations.
“We are encouraged by what we’ve got so far,” said Saunders. “We’re hopeful that the guide we are developing will be picked up and used to develop this kind of intervention program elsewhere.”
The paper, titled Addressing Essential Skills Gaps Among Participants in an OHS Training Program, was released in November.
Saunders explained the original motivation for the research was a 2012 study that showed almost half of the working-age population in Canada was below Level 3 (of 5) in literacy and over half was below Level 3 in numeracy.
Saunders said a discussion ensued at the IWH on how those skills deficits affected construction safety. The LIUNA program was identified as one where it was anticipated most trainees would have essential skills challenges, where training interventions were manageable, and where the occupation was hazardous.
It goes back to the importance of fostering a workplace culture that encourages people to speak up
— Ron Saunders
The Institute for Work and Health
“The essential skill levels of workers in the rigging occupation are particularly low and that’s likely to slow them down in terms of doing the calculations of safe loads,” said Saunders.
LIUNA training director Ted Gedney explained, “The IHSA hoisting and rigging was the program I thought would best fit. The trade math in the program was identified as the portion of the program that caused the students to either fail or just completely tune out.”
Baseline testing found the numeracy measure of many of the trainees was below Level 2.
Two streams of trainees were tested. One-third had not completed high school and another 40 per cent had no post-secondary education.
At the same time, the researchers studied attitudes at the workplace through interviews to obtain context for the exercise of newly acquired skills. One theme identified was the perceived tension between production and safety culture. The focus on productivity on worksites means workers are not always encouraged to do things the safe way, the report indicated.
Saunders said the unwillingness to speak up is a greater problem in construction trades where less training is required, and thus job security is diminished.
“Where trades people are less scarce, they have less labour market power, like these workers,” he said.
“It goes back to the importance of fostering a workplace culture that encourages people to speak up.
“Even if people are trained, you need a culture that says, it’s OK to take the time to do the calculations to ensure the load is safe.”
But in practice, the research found workers rarely do load calculations onsite. Rather, they rely on experience and expect that with cranes and slings and loads similar to other jobs, the outcomes will be the same, said Saunders.
“That raises larger issues beyond the training,” he commented.
Gedney said the instructor acknowledged a higher level of engagement in the enhanced program.
“It was helpful in terms of teaching the trainees to know how to do the calculations and also the document-use part,” said Saunders. “Trying to teach people, this is what the regulations say, and they learn to go back and refer to them. That was also an important part of the course.”
The study concluded training programs should consider providing a rationale for arithmetic content; there should be more applied exercises using equipment found on worksites; and the program should incorporate a worksite-based mentorship component.
“A key thing there is reinforcement on the worksite, that supervisors are reinforcing the application of what people have learned,” said Saunders.
Gedney said the LIUNA blueprint reading program would also benefit from the enhanced essential stills curriculum.
The new guidelines to essential skills training are expected to be posted on the IWH website for free use within two or three months.