The value of early risk communication

April 30, 2008
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The best injury is one that never happened. To prevent an injury we anticipate what could go wrong and put in appropriate safeguards.

The same can be said for avoiding safety and health conflict (i.e. severe disagreements) among management and the workforce.

To prevent conflict, where third-party resolution is often necessary, safety and health pros must exercise appropriate early risk communication.

Downside of conflict

In periods of conflict, sides are taken, some people are outraged,  demands are made, and irrational behavior, up to and including violence, is exhibited. It is a disruptive, time-consuming and costly period. Even after conflict is resolved, emotional wounds are difficult to heal. Clearly, management should strongly favor conflict avoidance.

Path to conflict

Conflict just doesn’t erupt. In safety and health matters, three periods precede conflict. These periods are: (1) curiosity, (2) concern and (3) controversy.

In the curiosity period, an employee makes a simple inquiry: “Is that guard installed correctly on my machine?” 

In the concern period, an employee may say, “That guard doesn’t look safe on my machine.”

And in the controversy period, the employee sstatement is more direct: “The guard on my machine is not safe.”

The old style of risk communication that includes deflect, defeat and dismiss encourages conflict. The deflect style of risk communication is where management attempts to change the subject until the employee loses interest. Defeat is where management takes the stand, “We’re right, you’re wrong, forget about it.”  Dismiss is where management just ignores the employee.

Use the “4C” method

Conflict may be avoided by using the 4C (foresee) risk communication method; where 4C refers to the four periods of curiosity, concern, controversy and conflict, and foresee is the ability of management to anticipate and prepare for safety and health questions that may arise from employees, customers or the public.

To avoid conflict, management obtains resolution at any period before conflict, preferably at the curiosity period. Curiosity is easier to resolve than concern and concern is easier to resolve than controversy. Curiosity can generally be resolved with brief and simple communication with employee(s). The greater challenge of risk explanations is needed to resolve concern. And in-depth evaluation, with give-and-take views, often is needed to resolve controversy. 

The 4C risk communication periods are similar, in terms of the relative number of occurrences and general strategy, to the injury pyramid. With the injury pyramid, there are many situations where near-miss events, that if left unattended, may lead to a smaller number of first-aid cases. These first-aid cases may lead to fewer still recordable injuries. Recordable injuries may lead to the rare worst-case event.

The curiosity period is comparable to near-miss incidents, concern to first-aid cases, controversy to a recordable injury, and conflict to the worst case. Best management practices today focus on near-misses to prevent recordable injuries or worse. Using a similar strategy, safety and health pros must focus on resolving curiosity to prevent conflict.

Address curiosity

Employee values, beliefs and behavior are considered (and often tallied) to help control near-miss incidents. We address curiosity in a similar fashion. Points to consider with curiosity are:
  • perception is reality;
  • people fear things the most that they understand the least;
  • truth is simply undisputed or poorly disputed statements or positions;
  • everything is harmful and nothing is harmful (amount of exposure or dose determines if harm may occur);
  • communication means sending a message and receiving feedback that the message was understood; and,
  • “First seek to understand, and then be understood.” (Stephen Covey)
How do we know if employees are curious about a topic? First, we ask them. As simple as a concept as this is, I am amazed at how often and to what extremes some management may take to avoid and discourage communication. Management should attempt to learn the mindset of its workforce and what interests them. Another means to anticipate curiosity is by scanning the news media, surfing the Internet, looking at trends, or considering likely future events or conditions.

Upon identifying a point of potential curiosity, management then establishes how they will respond. The simplest way to resolve curiosity is to let the employee know: a) you knew about the topic before they did; b) you determined if it was of any concern; and c) you worked with management on how to address the issue. Normally this is all the employee wants — someone looking out for their interest. If the employee knew something before you did, the issue just edged a little closer to “concern.”

Case study

My guess is your management hasn’t prepared any position on whether an employee, who wants to breast-feed her child, knows that her breast-milk is safe from workplace exposures and that she can safely pump and store her breast-milk at work. If management can’t immediately answer this curiosity question if it pops up, employee concern becomes a reality. Worse yet, struggle with an answer or give a wrong answer to the concern and you are headed for controversy and eventually conflict. Concern with one topic may lead to concerns in other topics as employee confidence in management’s safety and health awareness is diminished.

Here’s why this example has merit: Various news media are issuing more reports about industrial chemicals getting into breast milk. In 2002, a Google search for “toxic chemicals breast milk” yielded 21,000 returns. Run the search today and you will get over one million hits. Among the Web sites found are activist sites such as MOMS (Making Our Milk Safe). Objectives of this Web site include changing corporate behavior on views of breast-feeding (including just pumping and storing the milk) at work. On the potential legislative front, in 2006 OSHA issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that included adding a new section to MSDS and hazard communication “affects on or via lactation.” The proposed rule should be just around the corner.

I have seen safety and health pros stumble with the question, “Can I store my breast milk in the food refrigerator at work?” If you answer, “No, because it may be viewed by OSHA as a potentially infectious bodily fluid,” stand by for a firestorm of controversy or conflict.

Get management buy-in

If your management supports addressing near-miss injury/illness incidents, it should be amenable to improving risk communication to avoid safety and health conflict situations. This includes supporting the safety and health pro’s efforts, to anticipate curiosity among employees and plan, prepare and rehearse responses.

Senior managers do not like surprises. The 4C risk communication method, with an emphasis on addressing employee curiosity, will considerably reduce or eliminate surprises.

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