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Effective workplace communication with employees with an intellectual disability


Talking about safety

Workplace safety is everyone's responsibility. Communicating the messages about how to work safely is probably an everyday task for you. So doing it effectively is really important.

Employees need to follow health and safety rules in the workplace and know what to do if there is a health or safety problem. Many support staff in disability employment services worry over how to get employees with intellectual disabilities to work within the OH&S laws and principles. But explanations of OH&S rights and responsibilities for supported employees can be simplified, and people with intellectual disabilities can be assisted to understand and work within the safety regulations of the workplace.

One of the keys to getting employees to work safely is communicating the abstract notion 'safety', in concrete terms. An effective way to do this is by linking the actual things that are done in the name of 'safety' – walking in designated walkways, wearing PPE, and so on – with the concrete experience of 'being hurt'. In other words, we do all these 'safe' things to stop ourselves getting hurt. In this way, safety 'rules' (which are themselves an abstract concept), can become personalised and linked to the actual experience of the individual. Therefore it is made concrete – we follow the 'rules' so we won't get hurt (or hurt other people).

It is also effective to talk about safety by linking 'getting hurt' with something you know the employee has actually experienced at some time:

Do you remember when you got a rose thorn in your thumb? What did it feel like? What did you have to do? What do you need to do to stop getting hurt like this when you are pruning roses?

For many people with an intellectual disability it is very difficult to understand conditional relationships. For example, 'If I wear a high visibility vest in the warehouse, I'll be a lot less likely to be run down by the forklift', is a conditional statement. We learn this and then apply this conditional statement to our own specific case as well as to general cases (all workers who wear high visibility vests in the warehouse). We use conditional statements all the time as short cuts to aid our thinking and reasoning, but this ability can be very limited in someone with impaired cognitive functioning.


The work instruction for the can stripping line includes a requirement that all employees wear gloves. Amy rarely remembers to put hers on.

There are two prominent signs at the work station. One says: 'GLOVES MUST BE WORN', the other has a graphic of a glove in white on a clear blue background. When asked, Amy can explain what the signs mean. Still, she does not put a glove on unless specifically told to do so by Em.

From Em's notebook

I hit on an idea last week and it seems to be working. Amy never remembers to put on her glove when she strips the cans. She just doesn't seem to think the rule applies to her. So, I took a photo of her holding up her hand wearing a glove. I made two copies. I pasted one next to the sign 'Wear Gloves' nearest where Amy sits, and another is taped on her workbench where she can see it all the time she's working. Now, when Amy sits down, she sees the photo and says, 'Amy wears a glove', and puts the glove on before she starts work. I'm chuffed!


  1. When you want to clarify the key reason for safety at work, make sure you relate it back to the individual.

We do everything we can to work safely so that nobody gets hurt. Do you remember when you …

  1. Don't rely on an employee's ability to 'state the rule' as evidence that you have communicated it effectively. It is better to have her/him demonstrate they can work with the rule.

Please show me the areas where I need to wear a safety vest.

This sign says 'hearing protection must be worn'. What does that mean you have to do?

Put on the protective equipment you need to wear when you are mowing.

  1. Ask questions that require the employee to describe how they will act if there is a fire or emergency.

(While the fire/evacuation alarm is sounding in a drill) What do you have to do if you hear this sound? (Don't ask 'what does this sound mean')

  1. Don't supply all the safety information yourself (Tell Nathan if someone gets hurt). Ask the employee to point out the person or people they go to if there is a safety problem.

Who do you tell if someone gets hurt at work?

  1. Make sure the employee can perform basic safety checks of a tool or piece of equipment.

Show me how you check if the rake is okay to use today.

Show me the button you use to turn off the conveyor if there's a problem.

  1. Ask questions that will allow you to check that the employee can relate the rule to him or herself, not assume responsibility lies with another person.

John, can you tell me what YOU have to do if the conveyor starts making a noise?

Mirri, what do you have to do if you spill water on the floor?

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