Communicating Risk

How safety and health risks are explained can make a significant difference in the comfort level of those affected.  High EH&S Consulting can provide assistance in defining the audiences to which a communication must be made and designing a message that is appropriate.  We take the technical and put it into terms everyone can understand.  We also use the principles of risk communication to stem negative impacts that can result when a safety or health issue is at hand.  We have had experience in developing messages for audiences fearful of a wide range of safety and health issues.  If children are involved the concern level escalates rapidly.  

Some principles to keep in mind when developing a message to an audience regarding risk include:

  1. Never lie to an audience.  This will only cause the speaker to lose credibility.
  2. When discussing risks it is often best to compare them to a risk that people already accept (driving, smoking, x-ray radiation).
  3. Disagreement among experts will create more fear.
  4. Societal risks are more concerning than individual risks.
  5. If risks are imposed on individuals vs. allowing them to make the choice, more fear will be created.
  6. Knowledge dispels fear.  An expert that exudes confidence in handling the situation and can explain the hazard in clear terms will serve to minimize the concern level.
  7. Clearly set a course of action.  People will want to know what you are going to do about the problem.  Sometimes "doing things" is necessary from a public perception aspect more so than a true scientific basis for the action.
  8. Acknowledge and address the emotion prior to providing technical information.  If individuals are working from a highly intense emotional state, they are not in a position to listen.
  9. Avoid "us and them" statements.  Integrating the audience into the solution will give the sense of "We're all in this together".
  10. In a serious accident or similar high tension event, avoid making accusatory statements towards anyone. 
  11. Craft the message to the audience to which you are communicating. The same message can not be used for all audiences.
Trying to hide something will have the expected assumption that there is something to hide.  We are asked to come into facility after hours to determine if there is something hazardous because the owner wants to keep it "low key". This approach is not ideal in several aspects: a) If anyone does find out about after-hours testing, the presumptions will likely be worse than the reality; b) Conditions in a building can dramatically change without the occupants; c) Not interfacing with the individuals with the concerns, provides a large data gap. Interested occupants may ask us what we are doing...a simple "just checking the air quality" is all that is needed in response. 

A school administrator fretting over whether to reveal findings that a classroom had high levels of fungal contamination was pleasantly surprised when he took our advice and disclosed our findings with a concerned teacher.  The response was reasonable and positive.  Defining a problem and showing a course to resolution for most individuals will be a positive experience.  Often legal considerations need to figure into the picture, but adhering to strict liability control, can also impact trust levels and positive outcomes.