Dyslexia linked to higher risk of work injury among youth

A recent Institute for Work & Health study suggests that young people with dyslexia may be at greater risk of work injury due to their learning disability. This early finding underscores the importance of accommodating different learning styles in health and safety training.

Published: October 23, 2009

Young workers with dyslexia may be at an increased risk of getting hurt on the job because of their learning disability.

So says a new study from the Institute for Work & Health (IWH), the first to explore the relationship between learning disabilities, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and work-related injuries among youth. Led by IWH Scientist Dr. Curtis Breslin, the study was published in the August 2009 issue of the American Journal of Public Health (vol. 99, no. 8, pp. 1423-1430).

The early indicators are that dyslexia contributes to higher injury rates among young workers, says Breslin. It could be that the information-processing problems that characterize dyslexia make it more difficult to understand and remember safety training or contribute to poor supervisor-worker communications.

“Learning disabilities” is a term used to describe a range of problems that result in language or math difficulties. Dyslexia is one of them. It is earmarked by particular problems with reading, spelling and writing, and may include problems with memory, abstract reasoning and spatial orientation. ADHD is a disorder characterized by difficulty paying attention, impulsiveness and excessive energy.

The study was based on the 2003 Canadian Community Health Survey compiled by Statistics Canada. Researchers compared information on learning disabilities, ADHD, school status, work, work-related injuries and personal characteristics such as age and gender among more than 14,000 15- to 24-year-olds who had worked at some point during the previous year. Overall, 4.4 per cent of young people in the survey had some type of learning disability or ADHD.

Young people with dyslexia were 2.7 times more likely to have been injured on the job than those without a learning disability. After taking into account other factors that could explain a higher injury rate — such as being male, being out of school and working in a manual job — young people with dyslexia were still 1.9 times more likely to be hurt on the job. Dyslexia seems to have something unique, apart from demographics and work situations, to contribute to work injury rates among youth, says Breslin.

The same was not found for ADHD. Although young people with ADHD were twice as likely to have been hurt on the job than their peers without a learning disability or ADHD, their increased risk disappeared after factors such as gender, school status and occupation were taken into account.

Workplaces need to accommodate differences

Breslin believes the association between dyslexia and injury rates underscores the important role of the education system in workplace health and safety. The accommodation of diverse learning styles found in schools, where learning disabilities are a high-profile issue, drops off the map in the workplace, he points out. That leaves the education system in the best position to improve the literacy of all students, including those with learning disabilities, so they can get the most out of the training they receive in the workplace.

Nonetheless, employers should also be aware of the need for different training and communication styles in the workplace, Breslin adds. He suggests health and safety training incorporate the principles of universal design and make materials usable by all people, regardless of their age, ability or situation, to the greatest extent possible.

This would help address the fact that people with dyslexia typically do not tell their employers. They would rather do their best with the learning disability than ask for help because of the stigma, he says. Yet this is an issue in the workplace, as this study shows.

Researcher calls for larger study

Breslin calls these findings with respect to dyslexia “preliminary” because the number of young people with dyslexia who had also experienced a work-related injury was relatively small. However, he believes the association between dyslexia and injury rates is meaningful, and certainly an indication that a larger study is needed.

Notably, the study also confirmed an earlier finding of Breslin’s that young workers who are no longer in school, whether they obtained their high school diploma or not, are at an increased risk of work injury. The study points to an 80 to 86 per cent higher risk of work-related injury among out-of-school youth. A conclusive finding of this study is that school status is related to work injury, Breslin says.

For more information, go to www.iwh.on.ca/research-highlights.