Most EHS pros take a dim view of using fear to sell safety, according to ISHN’s January 2005 E-zine: “Can you be scared safe?”

But using fear to sell safety is part of EHS work. Many EHS regs — DOT HazMat vulnerability assessments and EPA risk management plans to name two — require employers to anticipate danger through “worst-case scenarios,” “foreseeable emergencies,” “exposure incidents” and other situations.

If we’re obligated at times to sell fear, how do we sell it best?

Get vivid

In fact, regulators want employers to develop and communicate a vivid description of dangerous risks. Generalizations are prohibited or discouraged. According to OSHA, for example, “Harmful if inhaled” is not a sufficient hazard warning on MSDSs or labels. Better to specify a target organ effect such as, “Inhalation may cause lung cancer.”

Our government has used plain language in its communications to the public since October 1998. Visit http://www.plainlanguage.gov/ and link to and then . Here you’ll find “before” (poor examples) and “after” (good examples) on how to write a safety and health handbook using rather blunt language.

For example, the “before” policy on hearing conservation begins, “The purpose of this chapter is to describe the minimum requirements for the hearing conservation program.”

The preferred language on hearing conservation starts with a vivid description: “This could happen to you ... A worker didn’t wear hearing protection while in a high-noise area. He later noticed ringing in his ears and experienced a temporary hearing threshold shift. This reduced his hearing capability for several days.”

All other preferred policy examples in the plain language safety and health handbook begin with the warning, “This could happen to you...” To encourage people to abide by various safety and health policies, regulators favor graphic descriptions, not generalizations.

Part of the job

EHS isn’t a “don’t worry, be happy” job. It’s not an easy job, either, as you well know. There are times when your straightforward presentation of the facts creates an unpleasant emotional reaction. The trick is to not trigger panic attacks.

When a manager, supervisor or employee experiences an unpleasant emotional reaction to a threat or risk, they first try to change or control the situation to be more at ease. Our bosses might try to pressure us to downplay the danger. Whether we back down depends upon the confidence we have in our prediction of danger. We have to be sure of the facts; very confident in our assessments of risk.

If a risk cannot be eliminated, employees will generally seek more control to protect themselves. As EHS professionals, we respond with the classic hierarchy of controls (engineering, administrative, and personal protective equipment).

Fear of selling

Perhaps the larger issue for EHS pros is a fear of selling — not of selling fear. Many of us are uncomfortable when we have to sell something. If you’ve ever been asked by your child to help with a fund-raising project by selling boxes of cookies at work, you know what I mean.

Most EHS pros get little academic training on how to sell. We learn on-the-job and hopefully with the help of a good mentor. Not surprisingly, EHS pros just beginning their careers have a more difficult time selling — convincing people to do what the pro wants. So if you’re early in your EHS career, use the issue of fear sparingly.

Part of the problem for newer EHS pros is credibility. An experienced and credentialed pro usually gets the benefit of the doubt when fear is introduced to sell an EHS issue. But even a seasoned EHS pro can run into problems selling with fear if their track record is spotty, and they lack credibility.

There are times when fear can help you make a sale, but never use fear in a sales pitch without immediately following up with the solution. If you don’t bring solutions to the table, you won’t have much credibility when you walk out the door.

Make no mistake about it: the work of EHS is intertwined with the fear factor. Dealing with dangers and risks is what we do, and fear becomes an unavoidable consequence of our communications, and at times, our selling.

SIDEBAR: A 10-point primer: Using fear to sell

1 - Acknowledge that part of EHS work calls for dealing with fearful reactions, and tapping those emotions to sell control proposals.

2 - Fear has two components: anticipation of danger and unpleasant emotion.

3 - Vivid descriptions of danger, required and encouraged by the government, create unpleasant emotions.

4 - Vivid descriptions of danger have limits, which may vary by the audience. Generally aim just to create an unpleasant emotion, not panic.

5 - When people experience an unpleasant emotion, they will take both positive and negative actions (fight or flight). This need to act affords an EHS pro the best opportunity to get people to do what the pro wants — use controls, PPE, etc.

6 - Facts and confidence can effectively counteract criticisms of fear-mongering, scare tactics, etc.

7 - Don’t generalize when discussing fearful scenarios — use “plain language.”

8 - EHS pros with significant experience and credibility are able to sell fear more readily than someone lacking these credentials.

9 - If you don’t have solutions to the risk that arouses fear, you won’t have much credibility.

10 - Selling fear isn’t a negative strategy when handled with care.