Every organisation communicates messages to staff, and large organisations spend significant time and resources on getting their employees to understand the requirements for workplace safety. However, new research has confirmed (our long held suspicion) that most safety communication is ineffective.
Complex Safety Systems
One of the biggest problems these days are long and complex safety procedures. When conducting safety audits, we observe that many procedures are 6 to 12 pages long and either lack clear instructions or bury them in amongst an ocean of semi-relevant background material.
A simple test you can apply to any procedure is to ask yourself “does any part of this procedure not give clear instruction?” If so, that section is not a procedure, but background material or training information and should be moved to an appendix or separate training program, or deleted outright (if it serves no purpose).
Sometimes we cause problems for workers by using formal corporate-level language or citing legal requirements verbatim from legislation and then wonder why workers don’t understand or comply.
A recent NZ study by a specialist adult literacy firm, Workbase, has reported some worrying statistics including the following:
- 64% of workers don’t understand written safety information such as policies, procedures or hazard alerts;
- Many employees don’t understand the purpose of the documents and can’t identify the important points;
- Many terms or words common to corporate safety specialists are strange or misunderstood by many workers, including words or phrases like; sustain, visible, appropriate, horseplay, practicable, stationary objects, adversely, compliance and significant hazard;
- Only 20% of workers could accurately complete their employer’s hazard report form;
- 14% of supervisors and team leaders were found to have low-level literacy skills;
- Many managers display low or mid-level understanding or interest in the safety process.
The lesson from this study is don’t model company policies, procedures or instructions on formal corporate language or official government documents.
Instead, it would be better to:
- Use short sentences with simple words;
- Use the least number of words;
- Write it once and edit five times to simplify;
- Use sentences clear in purpose;
- Use a simple consistent format for each communication, so employees get used to the style;
Unsure Persons Don’t Complain
The NZ study also noted that those workers who had low literacy skills usually lacked the confidence, or the language skills to ask for further explanation about things they don’t understand, or to challenge anything they do not agree with.
Effective Types of Employee Communication
Earlier research work conducted by Dr Larkin (Communicating with Employees – What Works, What Doesn’t, IPMA, 1989) found that most organisations continue to communicate on the things they are interested in, such as share price, business growth, LTI rates, but not on what employees want to hear about i.e. job security, local workplace changes, the safety of their work area and their pay and conditions.
Dr Larkin lists the least effective communication types, through to the most effective per below:
Your communication should be tailored to the interests of your employees to ensure engagement and support. The writing style should be one that is easily understood, gets to the point and does not create confusion.
Questions should be encouraged, and potentially worked into your safety communication program.