Communication is always the secret to effective safety in any worksite. While words themselves – written or spoken – do not necessarily cause incidents or injuries directly, a lack of effective communication can certainly lead to such problems if not handled and addressed in an effective manner.

Communication is so important, there is an OSHA standard regarding it, called the HazCom, or hazard communications standard which all workplaces must employ due diligence to meet. For years, the standard was developed only as an admonition for workplaces to employ communication strategies and tactics  so that all enployees are made aware of risks and safety protocols while on the worksite.

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

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

Before 2012, companies were showing due diligence to communicate by offering safety trainings and posting signs and other safety mechanisms around the worksite.

But when the HazCom standard was re-written in 2012, communication has gone to another level. Now it’s not enough to post signage – now employers are expected to ensure that their workers understand what they are reading and hearing when it comes to safety.

As with most communication, it is a two-way street. It takes a message going from a sender to a recipient. And the message, to be effectively communicated, must be understood by the recipient more than by the sender. This means that the message must fit the audience which needs to understand the message.

In the November 2015 issue of Professional Safety magazine, Dr. Carolyn Kusbit Dunn wrote an article about the importance of taking employees from just being aware of safety protocols to actually understanding them. The key, she wrote, was to understand the audience and thus craft safety messaging in a way that can be understood by the greatest number of people. The best way she describes to achieve this is through what is called the Markel Model. Here are the steps.

Audience ID

The very first step in the Markel Model is to identify the primary audience for your safety information. This means being as specific as you can; general safety information to everyone will not reach everyone in the audience the same way. For example, drill down and say you want to present new safety procedures for a specific piece of equipment, which only a few workers are certified to use; know the specific group of people and massage your safety training to fit that group.

Be at Their Level

The second step to developing the right messaging to your audience is to know the audience’s job responsibilities and experience with that job. If the group is working with equipment for a certain amount of time to be certified, you don’t have to “dumb down” your training below their competence or understanding; if they are all certified, you know they have a certain advanced level of training and competence, so you don’t need to insult them. Talk to them at their level; that respect will help them understand better because they will be more apt to listen and ask germane questions.

Attitude Aptitude

This is where employee engagement can be very important in the development of the safety content. This step involves understanding the attitude of the employees toward the information – do they find safety information helpful and useful, or do they see this as a waste of time and effort that adversely affects their productivity? Here, asking some employees to be involved in the creation of the content can help you understand  what employees think of the information, how they might use it, and how best to get their attention – employees can tell you better than anyone what information they would need and what information is irrelevant or unnecessary.

Know Competence

This part of the model takes a step back to basics in terms of knowing how to write and communicate the content. This involves asking the question about the audience’s reading comprehension and overall education level. Is your audience primarily native English speakers, or does it struggle with English as a second language? The formation of sentences and word choices play a big role here, as do the use of graphics (photos, drawings, etc.) and either audio or video to complement the written text you use.

What to Do With This?

The last step to consider is how the workers might or would use the information. Are you providing step-by-step instructions on a process? Then you might have to print out the steps in some kind of bound media or posted near the equipment or worksite so the worker can easily follow and refer to the steps as they work. Will this information need to be seen from a distance? Then you will need larger text on a sign. Will you need to use short words and phrases, or can you be more technical? Will the information be displayed outside among the elements, or will it be inside a warehouse or a smaller office space? Understanding the means by which the information will be disseminated will go a long way in determining how to best present the information so it is understood by all.