Poor risk communication can cause financial ruin

Oct. 29, 2008
Learn to increase risk communication effectiveness

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

Risk factor of dying  Lifetime odds  Comparison to 1/1,000,000 risk factor (approximated)
In an auto accident (occupant) 1 in 228 3891x greater
By assault by firearm 1 in 315 3175x greater
While riding a motorcycle 1 in 1,159 863x greater
By drowning while in or falling into bathtub 1 in 10,582 94x greater
By legal execution  1 in 55,597 18x greater
From a lightning strike 1 in 56,439 18x greater
While riding in a train 1 in 133,035 9.9x greater
In a flood 1 in 413,887 2.4x greater

Source: National Safety Council. NSC estimates based on data from National Center for Health Statistics and U.S. Census Bureau using 2002 statistics and data from the National Center for Health Statistics, the U.S. Census Bureau. See www.nsc.org/lrs/statinfo/odds.htm.

  • Prepare and practice your communication strategy. Different audiences require different delivery strategies to increase effectiveness. Thought and preparation will increase credibility and trust.
  • Disclose relevant facts. Failure to disclose important facts related (or perceived to be related) to the risk at hand will attack your credibility.
  • Exploit all channels of communication. Risk communication channels may include e-mail, the company intranet, small group discussions, information exchanges, print and electronic materials and large company-wide meetings. It may be best to use several methods simultaneously to reach your entire target audience and provide accurate information. The channels to choose will depend on the complexity and sensitivity of the material to be presented and the target audience.
  • Provide a mechanism for employees to voice concerns and request information. Such a mechanism will decrease potential for alarm and minimize the propagation of false information. Establishing an open and transparent environment will increase the level of trust between the employees and the company. Failure to establish this trust will most certainly result in employees seeking assistance beyond the company, drawing the media and other outside parties into the fray. Failure to provide a method for employees to receive information and express concerns can be problematic; in such an environment facts are often misstated, sensationalism can occur and premature judgments and assessments are made. Failure to control a situation at its onset properly or communicate in an honest fashion can be a costly mistake (financially and otherwise).
  • Correct misinformation. If substantive inaccuracies are circulating regarding a risk, move quickly to correct them since they have the potential to be perceived as truth and can further exacerbate a problem. If the misinformation is confined to a small group, address that group rather than create a major public event. However, if concern has become widespread, move aggressively and publicly to correct the misinformation before it worsens.
  • Maintain interaction and exchange of information with employees regarding their concerns. The lines of communication must stay open to maintain trust and ensure that accurate information continues to be shared.

Every risk communication challenge is unique, since circumstances, personal biases and value systems all vary between individuals and may even vary within individuals over time. However, many of the strategies discussed in this article should be viewed as tools that can be used to increase risk communication effectiveness.

A thorough assessment and understanding of the specific issues for each risk communication situation, as well as understanding those that may be affected, are critical to a successful outcome. Potential barriers must be identified and a succinct approach to minimize them should be implemented. People skills such as developing trust, showing care and empathy, personalizing the risk, presenting clear and concise information and succinctly focusing on what is being done to minimize risk should be considered equally as important as the science, because without such skills the message is often lost. 

For more information on industrial hygiene and methods for promoting health and safety in the workplace, as well as a listing of industrial hygiene consultants, please visit the American Industrial Hygiene Association website at www.aiha.org.

Behar, an MS, MBA and CIH (Certified Industrial Hygienist), is a member of the American Industrial Hygiene Association and a  senior safety professional at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif. He can be reached at (818) 354-8042 or [email protected].

Potential Barriers to Successful Risk Communication
  • Inadequate risk communication planning, preparation, resources, skill and practice
  • Complexities and uncertainties in the data
  • Complex risk messages without personalization
  • Psychological factors that affect how those concerned process risk information
  • Misunderstanding the audience—different goals and different audiences require different actions
  • Dismissing an employee’s concerns
  • Communicating risk through complex statistics
  • Focusing on what is not being done, rather than on what is being done
  • Not recognizing opposing view
  • Biased reporting by the media
  • Not addressing media sensationalism and/or unfounded rumors
  • The appearance of an unwillingness to acknowledge risks or disclose or share information—instead, be prepared to address these issues head on
  • Inappropriate presentation style/medium for what is to be discussed
  • Not using all available channels of communication
  • Not addressing employee concerns or providing a medium to address questions and concerns
  • Not providing a forum for employees to voice and address their concerns
  • Lack of trust in information sources by those affected 


  1. Covello, V.T.: Risk perception, risk communication and EMF exposure: Tools and techniques for communicating risk information. In: Risk Perception, Risk Communication and Its Application to EMF Exposure: Proceedings of the World HealthOrganization/ ICNRP International Conference (ICNIRP 5/98). Matthes, R., J.H. Bernhardt and M.H. Repacholi, eds. Vienna, Austria: International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection, 1998. pp. 179–214.
  2. Peters, R.G., V.T. Covello and D.B. McCallum: The determinants of trust and credibility in environmental risk communication: An empirical study. Risk Analysis 17:43–54 (1997).
  3. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Public Knowledge and Perceptions of Chemical Risks in Six Communities: Analysis of a Baseline Survey. Washington, D.C.: USGPO, 1990.
  4. National Safety Council: Based on data from National Center for Health Statistics and U.S. Census Bureau, 2002.