The National Academy of Sciences defines risk communication as “an interactive process of exchange of information and opinion among individuals, groups and institutions.”1
Because risk communication is an interactive process involving an exchange of information that also involves opinions and other variables beyond the communicator’s control, delivering a message in the manner that you would like it to be perceived may be difficult. Many well-intentioned managers or others responsible for maintaining safe working conditions are often surprised by the difficulties encountered when trying to accurately convey potential risk to an employee. But if we think about the many times something we say or write gets misunderstood in our daily lives, is it really surprising that communication of risk, science, facts and statistics may suffer a similar fate?
Risk communication basics
You must be an effective communicator before you can effectively communicate risk. More importantly, you need to ensure that your audience is willing and ready to hear your message. Things to consider:
- Can they hear you? Strive to eliminate everything that distracts, be it noise, interruptions, physical or emotional discomfort, distracting mannerisms or dress, etc.
- Do they trust what you are saying and your intentions? Establishing trust is paramount for your message to be heard.
- Have you made them feel comfortable and welcome? A simple greeting or inquiry about the other person’s health or personal circumstances is often all it takes to establish a willingness to listen.
- Is this a time when they can concentrate on your message? If someone close to the employee was recently injured, it is not a good time to discuss risk.
The cost of ineffective communication
From a safety and exposure standpoint, the failure to clearly communicate risk can cost the company in many ways. The company can take on too much risk and suffer financial ruin when a mishap occurs. Personnel can be paralyzed when a low-risk hazard is perceived as high risk.
Effective risk communication must be viewed as both an art and a science. It is a professional discipline, and its application requires knowledge, planning, preparation, skill and practice. The following practices provide a basic framework for a successful risk communication program.
- Understand and evaluate information gathered. Disseminating sampling results and other information without providing a reference point and without being able to communicate potential confounding variables, complexities and uncertainties can compromise credibility and over- or underestimate actual risk—and will not alleviate potential concerns.
- Understand any gaps in the information gathered. Be able to address any gaps or unknowns. Do not try to gloss over them or hide them; if discovered, your credibility will suffer.
- Understand your audience and choose the appropriate presentation style or medium. Know what their concerns are and what is driving their concerns. Take the time to understand how they perceive risk and who they trust. Use this knowledge to customize your presentation in a manner that they will understand and to anticipate questions or comments.
- Pay as much attention to dealing with people as you do to explaining the data. Effective risk communication is as much about human relationships as it is about transmitting facts. Knowing your data is only one piece of the puzzle. Failure to understand the concerns and fears of the audience, as well as their level of risk acceptance, is a sure-fire way to ensure that your message will not be perceived in the manner desired.
- Understand that not all people are created the same. Different people have different levels of risk acceptability. Tailor your communication appropriately.
- Recognize that employees may respond irrationally to the risk information and may not accurately perceive and evaluate it. Do not dismiss their concerns with statistics.
- Establish trust. People often care more about trust, credibility, competence, fairness and empathy than about statistics and details. Trust is needed before other goals, such as education and consensus building, can be achieved. Trust can only be built over time and is the result of ongoing actions, listening and communication skills.2 To help gain trust, an industrial hygienist should work to demonstrate empathy, commitment to employees, technical competency and expertise, honesty and openness. One advantage an industrial hygienist does have is that surveys demonstrate that industrial hygienists are perceived to have high to medium trust on health, safety and environmental issues.3 However, this trust can be significantly eroded if information is not presented properly. Verbal and nonverbal communication should be carefully planned so that the appropriate message is being communicated. Trust and credibility are difficult to obtain; once lost, they are almost impossible to regain.
- Recognize that employee perceptions of trust can change. Trust can change as a result of things beyond your control, such as media sensationalism, unfounded rumors and the appearance of unwillingness to acknowledge risks or share information. Be prepared to address these issues head on.
- Empathize. Acknowledge employees’ concerns and be prepared to address them without dismissing them. By being empathetic, prepared and well organized, your message will be heard with greater credibility.
- Communicate risk clearly in a meaningful way by providing a comparison against everyday risks.4 While many employees may be uncomfortable with being exposed to a 1 in 1 million increased risk of cancer after being exposed to a workplace chemical hazard, they may be less alarmed when such statistics are presented in a format that is easily understood. Compare the risk with one they may be familiar with or accept in their everyday lives (see Table 1).
Table 1. Examples of familiar risk factors