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November 25, 2009

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Communication skills for health and safety practioners

We all know that crafting a safety report is never going to get you shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, but practitioners should not underestimate the value of good writing skills in contributing to a safer and healthier workplace, argues Rob Ashton.

When you’re lost in a foreign country, or an unfamiliar city, there’s a good chance that someone will give you incomplete directions. They’ll unwittingly miss out the part about turning right at the church, or forget that the left turn comes before the roundabout.

And even if they do give you full instructions, there’s no guarantee that you’ll follow them to the letter. You might misinterpret the traffic lights for the intersection, for instance. Or you might deliberately veer off the suggested route for a more scenic version — not realising that you’re venturing into an area where even the locals don’t care to go.

Why are writing skills important?

But in terms of workplace welfare, giving incorrect directions can be far more costly than a few minutes of discomfort. For example, an employee could launch legal action if a safe work guideline contains a minor error that leads them to suffer an injury.

Depending on the industry, your company’s employees may be called on to operate complex machinery, drive heavy vehicles, or manage toxic substances. The financial and legal consequences of any accidents can be substantial, so creating clear, accurate written work when communicating health and safety information is essential.

Hefty fines and compensation payouts to injured employees won’t just hit your company’s bottom line; they can also cause a huge loss of reputation and morale. In contrast, companies with low accident records are likely to attract the best staff and have greater employee engagement. This means that money can be spent on training existing staff rather than employing new ones.

The three scenarios described at the outset should all be considered when preparing to write a health and safety document. If you’re writing standard operating procedures or compliance documents, for instance, you should spell out all the directions in the exact order. Every instruction should be crystal clear so that it can be accurately followed. Finally, you should present a compelling case to any ‘thrill-seekers’, or those prone to divert from normal practice, that curiosity could not only kill them but endanger their colleagues.

Creating a safe working environment is not an easy task, but learning and applying a series of writing tools and techniques can help you effectively communicate health and safety messages. The techniques outlined below will help you write high-impact reports, procedures, and instruction documents, but they can be applied to all your written work. The key thing to remember is that your writing needs to be clear and reader-centred. By understanding the potential pitfalls for your reader, you can help keep them on the right road.

Writing instructions
Bullet points

The secret to writing good instructions or procedures is to do lots of ground work. The end result may be a simple point-by-point document, but the real work is done by careful planning. Brainstorm your ideas and clarify your thoughts by using the headings: Who? What? Where? When? and Why? You can also carry out this exercise with a colleague to ensure you consider all possibilities.

Once you’ve got it all down on paper, focus on whom you’re writing for and decide what information must be included, and in what order. Then lay out the instructions in numbered steps, using bullet lists where necessary.

Remember that bullet lists always need an introduction (like this one). They help:

  • convey key information;
  • break down complex lists; and
  • summarise main points.

Creating order

Using bullet points helps make lists clearer, as they are more visual. They also make good use of space and grab readers’ attention. But you can’t guarantee that your readers will scan the information and digest it before they put it into practice. They may assume that all the information they need is in the right order (even if you haven’t numbered the list), so you need to be careful.

For example, imagine you’re sending an employee to the Gulf of Mexico on an oil and gas exploration trip, but you don’t mention until point five that they need a crucial piece of equipment. By this time, they may already be on site and unable to locate the tools they need. You will therefore need to spell everything out and take care not to over-estimate how much your reader will know about any particular safety process.

You can use the same brainstorming process for creating instructions. Alternatively, try drawing a ‘mind map’ using a pencil and a piece of paper. Avoid using the computer for this, as getting away from the screen can help keep your mind fresh and encourage the creative process. Next, go through and group together the ideas that have elements in common. Then decide the order in which you want them to go, starting with the most important points.

Creating the right impact

Consider writing your own catchphrases. Create one or two-line slogans to help emphasise certain points. Writing in a punchy, catchy way will grab your readers’ attention. Slogans such as ‘it’s better to have two on the job than one in hospital’ and ‘never assume, as assume makes an ass of U and Me’ are easy to remember and can help drive your messages home.

Psychology experts have found that people respond better to instructions when they’re written in positive rather than negative language. So, write ‘keep calm’ instead of ‘don’t panic’, or ‘always be on time’ rather than ‘don’t be late’. This type of positive language has the subtle effect of keeping your readers motivated to follow your instructions.

Writing reports
Identify your audience

Imagine you need to write a report to highlight your recommendations about the emergency-planning procedures at your company. You’ve identified the risks that could affect the health and safety of the employees, but you feel that some extra training is needed to make sure everyone understands what to do in an emergency.

The first thing to do is focus on your reader. Putting the reader first increases the likelihood that your report will be received favourably. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the report about?
  • Who will read it?
  • How much do they already know about the subject?
  • What do they need to know?
  • How important is the subject to them?
  • How interested are they in the subject (which is not necessarily the same as the above question)?

Compelling executive summaries

Don’t assume that your reader will have time to carefully study your report. Highlight your recommendations right at the top of the executive summary. Give them the recommendations first, and then describe the benefits of your recommendations to the organisation.

Five quick tips

Whether you’re writing a poster, sign, leaflet, or training document, use the tips below to make your writing as attention-grabbing and powerful as possible.

Be empathetic

Always step into your readers’ shoes. Try to demonstrate, for example, that you understand the type of stress that can occur from working in cold stores, or in the open air during winter. Use words such as ‘you’, ‘we’ and ‘us’ to help connect with the employees.

Get active

Use the active voice where possible. Keep your sentences simple and opt for verbs instead of nouns. For instance: ‘The recommendation is that you abstain from using alcohol for 48 hours before driving’ uses the noun ‘recommendation’ and sounds formal and stilted. A much better alternative is to write: ‘We recommend that you don’t drink alcohol for 48 hours before driving.’

Stay focused

If you’re writing guidelines for your employees about how to prevent the spread of swine flu, then the instructions for hand washing will be one of your main messages. Don’t dilute what you’re trying to say by focusing on things such as government legislation, or other types of illnesses.

Plain and simple

Using plain English helps keep your writing clear, so try to write for your audience in the way they speak. This doesn’t mean you should resort to slang; just choose simple words over complicated alternatives. So, instead of writing, ‘cease from smoking’, write ‘stop smoking’. Above all, adopt a tone that you know your readers will instantly understand.

Use a fine-tooth comb

Always proofread your work carefully, using a pencil to point to every word. It’s easy to miss typos, jarring sentences, and spelling mistakes, particularly in headings, when you’ve been looking at a document for too long, so it is best to proofread your work a few days after writing it.  Alternatively, ask a colleague to look over it carefully for you.


It can be tough to get your messages to hit home. Safety is a thankless task, as you are probably all-too aware: colleagues don’t tend to congratulate you because they’ve had no accidents that week.

However, by engaging people, your writing can be a powerful tool that can help save lives and keep employees happy and healthy. You can never be sure that your colleagues won’t act like the tourist who gambles on walking through the wrong part of town. But, at least you can be sure that you’ve done all you can to guide them to a safe destination.

Rob Ashton is chief executive of specialist business-writing training company Emphasis.

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