Risk communication and your legal duties

The legal requirement to inform and instruct workers about health and safety is pretty simple and well-established.

There might be issues with whether risk communication happens enough, but for some of those responsible, a quick talk on the importance of health and safety, maybe a chat on emergency procedures or what to do in case of fire, might all seem enough to say ‘yes I’ve met my legal duties’.

From the perspective of a worker, making messages which are memorable and which change lives for the better requires a bit more effort.

The fundamental goal of health and safety communication is to provide meaningful, relevant and accurate information, in clear and understandable terms, to specific stakeholders. This in turn can:

• promote awareness and understanding of the management of health and safety as well as specific risk issues
• promote consistency and transparency in arriving at and implementing H&S risk-management decisions
• provide a sound basis for understanding the management of health and safety within the organisation
• improve the overall effectiveness and efficiency of the implementation of the management system
• contribute to the development and delivery of effective information, instruction and learning opportunities
• strengthen the working relationships and mutual respect among all participants in health and safety
• assist in the exchange of information, knowledge, attitudes, values, practices and perceptions of interested parties concerning health and safety

Start at the beginning

There are steps you should be taking when considering communicating with employees and others about health and safety, such as:

• ensuring the full involvement and participation of everyone in health and safety decision-making
• providing employees with information to ensure legal compliance and good practice requirements are met
• influencing behaviour and attitudes in order to engender a positive safety culture and ensure the application of safe work practices
• replacing fear, suspicion and ignorance with knowledge and understanding of the importance of health and safety
• justifying any risk management decision making process to stakeholders

It’s not all plain sailing

Barriers to effective communication exist; recognising those barriers and knowing how to overcome them are essential for effective communication.

Barriers include:

• An inability to obtain appropriate or accurate information
• Not having full participation. Communications may fail if the appropriate stakeholders do not fully participate in the communication process.
• Health and safety perception differences among stakeholders.
• Receptiveness to the message. Many individuals believe they are personally less affected by health and safety than other people and perceive that messages are directed towards other people.
• Credibility of message source. Stakeholders do not always trust the sources of information about health and safety.
• Societal characteristics. Societal factors that can make communication more difficult include language differences, cultural factors, religious laws, illiteracy, poverty, a lack of legal, technical and policy resources and a lack of infrastructures that support communication.

Communications in the future

Certainly, trends in work and life – how mobile technology is blurring the boundaries between life and work, longer hours, management style or insecure work – do seem to be turning up the pressure on the methods of communications we employ. Facing up to modern trends requires risk communications that, in a media-saturated world, can compete for people’s attention.

Our communications will have to be inspiring, thought-provoking and relevant if they are to make a difference and be anything other than a half-hearted effort to meet legal requirements.

Deciding on the form of the communication is important – is it demanding an emotional or intellectual response? What is the message or information you want people to know and what are they expected to do with it? How do you make it relevant to a huge variety of people doing such different work?

Whatever method you choose, make sure you plan it. As an old friend once said: “Planning prevents poor performance.” Well, I think that’s how he said it.

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