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MANAGING BEST PRACTICES: How to talk about risk

March 29, 2002
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Attitudes and opinions about risk are becoming more public and are increasingly being driven by non-experts. This fuels the need for more effective risk communication on your part. Since there are few regulations for risk communication and very few established risk references ("safe" exposure limits exist for only about one percent of all chemicals in commercial use) many environmental health and safety pros struggle with what to do.

EHS pros often lament that the OSHA hazard communication program they used for years "is no longer effective." Often it's not that the hazard communication program is broken or boring, it's that the EHS pro hasn't fixed or updated risk communication to accommodate questions from new employees who may have different values and beliefs from the older workforce.

And risk communication with the public is more challenging than communicating with employees because the public is more diverse and often a more demanding and skeptical group.

Almost all chemicals can be made to produce a toxic response under specific conditions of exposure. In this sense, all chemicals are potentially toxic. The important question is not simply that of toxicity, but rather that of risk - what is the probability that toxic properties of a chemical will produce harm? Your challenge is to determine this probability and to effectively explain the risk to stakeholders: employees, the public, activist groups, the media, etc. Here are ten tips to help you:

1) Anticipate questions.

This is by far the most important factor for successful risk communication. Pay attention to general perceptions about risks. Be aware of risk perceptions about chemicals used at your workplace. Always keep learning. For example, if your company uses toluene or lead, you should know why risk communication has recently changed for these chemicals. Rehearse and evaluate your answers to likely questions.

2) Establish credibility & trust.

Your good reputation is important. If you're not viewed as trustworthy, find someone else to handle risk communication.

3) Demonstrate empathy & concern.

Never view or react to a question as if it were a dumb question. Treat all questions as a serious matter. View the question from the other person's frame of mind. Respond with compassion. Remain calm. These actions will help diffuse hostile, confrontational and tense settings.

4) Seek first to understand.

Who is asking the question? Why? Are they just curious or is there a real concern? If you are not familiar with who is asking the question, you can always ask them questions before you provide an answer. Establish rapport. Involve the questioner as a partner in the risk communication process.

5) Communicate at the person's level of understanding.

Target your communication to the person's vocabulary, literacy and education level. Always explain technical jargon and acronyms. Determine if language is a barrier to effective communication. If so, working with an experienced interpreter may be helpful.

6) Use visual aids.

A picture is worth a thousand words. Use graphs and charts to help illustrate concepts. Your body language is also a visual aid. Do not let your mannerisms or facial expressions contradict your true message.

7) Be honest & open.

If you are not sure, say so. And commit to find the answer as soon as practical. If a risk assessment that involves exposure sampling is necessary to find answers, provide time estimates to complete this work.

8) Obtain feedback.

Communication means sending a message and receiving feedback that the message was understood. This back and forth exchange should not be a debate. Build an understanding that all parties agree with. Besides direct verbal feedback, consider using forms and questionnaires.

9) Refer to credible sources & third parties.

The world is awash with differing views and biases on risks. Defer to government sources, consensus standards such as Threshold Limit Values, and peer-reviewed scholarly journals. Carefully evaluate risk information found online. Review EHS activist and health advocates' positions on risk pertaining to chemicals used at your workplace. This understanding will help you better anticipate questions or concerns (see #1 above).

10) Stand your ground.

Your objective is to inform - not to completely persuade everyone to your line of thinking. After you have provided sufficient information and established a reasonable risk position, do not waffle. Expressed doubt is contagious. Do not leave risk communication open-ended. Bring it to a conclusion.

A written program should support these ten tips to demonstrate a consistent and ongoing strategy that has management's backing. Handling risk communication ad-hoc contributes to missteps that may be hard to recover from.

Remember, your goal is not to disarm a person's concern regarding exposure to chemicals, but rather to arm the person with the information necessary to determine if that level of risk is acceptable to them.

To learn more about risk communication visit the Foundation for American Communi-cations' Web site at www.facsnet.org. Link to "Reporting Tools" and then link to the handbook, "Reporting on Risk."

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