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The perils of risk communication

How do you make an important message memorable? We look at our latest video, The Last Word, under our Speak Up Stay Safe young people campaign and consider why it produced some very interesting reactions.

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

There might be issues 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, all might seem enough to say ‘yes I’ve met my legal duties’.

From the perspective of a worker, making messages memorable and which change lives for the better, requires a bit more effort. People have to earn the trust of others. Employers – and others interested in the field of risk communication, like the British Safety Council – have to earn the right to be listened to. This is particularly important around any risk communication on health and wellbeing.

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 people. HSE informs us that 440,000 people are experiencing work-related stress, anxiety or depression.

Facing up to these trends requires risk communications that, in a media-saturated world, aggressively 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 other than a half-hearted effort to meet legal requirements. But there can be a hair’s breadth between thought-provoking and controversial.

This became clear to me when we released our latest video, The Last Word, under our Speak Up Stay Safe young people campaign. The video, aiming to give workers a bit more awareness of how common causes of stress can increase risks of accidents, and doing so by deliberately giving the viewer a bit of a jolt, triggered very interesting reactions. Some felt it blamed the worker; or was suggesting avoiding work if you’re stressed, others that it didn’t provide a solution to mental health problems. Others thought it powerful and memorable.

All these readings are valid and understandable, and we did look again at the video’s message. However, what was interesting to me is the difficulty and perils inherent in risk communication. Experience would tell me that communications must reflect the interest of its target audience if it is to reach it with a message. 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?

How work impacts on health, and health on work, will likely be the dominant question for the future and requires more discussion, openness and involvement by everyone – from policy makers, employers, trade unions, tech developers, the media and, crucially, the public. For communications, this means looking at both the form of the communication, its message and who it is trying to reach. Get one wrong and it will sail past into oblivion. Our conference Health and Work in a Changing World is on 5 October will be picking up on the challenge of building healthy workplaces, and communications is key to it.

2017 is the British Safety Council’s 60th anniversary. We’re planning an exciting programme to celebrate this milestone – watch this space for more information.

What do you think?

Michael Robinson
Chief Executive | British Safety Council

Last Word

2:20

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