Many of us learned how to read when we were little. We were able to practice with our parents the concept of sounding out letters, syllables and words to be able to read whole sentences. And then whole paragraphs.

We smile at the accomplishment of getting through a Dr. Seuss book reading flawlessly.

But as with many things, if we are just learning how to read, we often cannot answer questions about what we read – our brains were so busy processing the words themselves, that we always struggled to put all the words together and be able to comprehend what we read.

[Image courtesy of Flickr user Sebastien Wiertz via a Creative Commons license]

[Image courtesy of Flickr user Sebastien Wiertz via a Creative Commons license]

With most concepts, whether it’s reading, math, science, etc, we often can learn something much earlier than we can comprehend or understand it. It is when we understand something that is when it clicks into place in our mind as something new we have learned.

Communication by itself does not harm us – it does not actually cause accidents, incidents or injuries on a worksite. However, a lack of effective communication can be a contributing factor in many worksite incidents. More specifically, risk communication (or hazard communication, a k a HazCom) can be used as a leading effect, as shown by the most recent OSHA report of the 10 most common violations. For fiscal year 2014, risk communication was listed as the second-most cited violation.

How is that? Simply by a lack of communication. But this isn’t just not putting forth safety training or putting up signage or warnings; this is about the next step – the comprehension and understanding. It is one thing to put up signage that workers can read; often, however, employers get cited for workers not understanding what they read.

This is where the 2012 OSHA update to the HazCom standard comes in.

An Important Update

The OSHA HazCom standard was introduced in 1994 and received a significant update in 2012. At the heart of the update was an admonition by OSHA to take the original standard of communicating hazards at a worksite, to developing a process of understanding the risks. OSHA wanted to achieve this by bringing the U.S. in harmony with the Global Harmonized System (GHS) of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals. Thi includes using language as well as graphics like pictograms to more universally communicate risks and warnings in a way that can be understood more readily by all workers regardless of educational level, culture, socioeconomics or any other factor.

It has been shown repeatedly that merely having signage or safety training alone is not enough for a company to ensure safety of workers. It comes down to not just reading Dr. Seuss; it’s about understanding what is being read. OSHA updated the HazCom standard to push companies to take the next step, from education to understanding.

But How to “Force” Understanding?

This is the tricky part about the standard. OSHA is requiring companies to get understanding from employees, but companies cannot say they have a lot of control over how well or easily certain individuals understand what is being told to them about safety.

We all know that companies can’t actually “force” their employees to understand – however, companies can develop safety programs, signage and other tools to encourage better understanding and comprehension. This can involve utilizing some of the tools provided by GHS in regards to how chemicals are labeled, and apply those techniques to various other safety situations.

Carolyn Kusbit Dunn wrote an article in the November 2015 issue of Professional Safety magazine about companies needing to bridge the gap between awareness and understanding in safety. In my next post we’ll get into the heart of her article, which discusses five steps that companies can take to help them understand their workforce better, and thus be able to present the safety information in a way that can more easily be understood by the workforce.

It is called the Markel Model of audience analysis. Communication is most effective  not by the quantity of the communication, but the quality – and the quality of the message is determined by its effectiveness on the audience. And often, to get the audience to understand, you have to know the audience in order to hit the right buttons of receptivity.