Employers know that workplace health and safety training is an integrated business process directly related to an organization's profitability. Incidents can cost businesses in terms of workers' compensation costs, medical expenses, insurance premiums, worker downtime, worker replacement costs, morale, and direct damages, not to mention costs associated with violating regulatory compliance standards.

However, though they are motivated to provide training materials for their employees, employers are challenged to identify suitably designed materials. Printed educational materials - essential to any good safety training program - must not only be of high quality but, to be most effective, must be suitable for the audience you're trying to reach.

Suitability approach

Literacy among employees is a major concern of safety professionals. A 1997 New England Journal of Medicine report says that about one-quarter of the U.S. adult population cannot understand written materials that require only basic reading proficiency. Understanding basic safety information, such as material data safety sheets, hazardous materials information and operating instructions for machinery is a challenge for workers with low literacy skills.

The suitability of the safety training information to the reader underlies the impact of its effectiveness. Good printed training materials should follow a model that emphasizes the materials' suitability for the intended audience to achieve the stated goals. This "suitability approach" is broader than the common tendency to focus only on reading level. It uses an assessment that addresses six themes: content, literacy demand, graphics, layout and typography, learning stimulation/motivation and cultural appropriateness.

Evaluating print materials

Content - The content of the training materials must address the purpose of the information so that the reader understands its importance. Content scope should explain the problem and what to do, but not overwhelm the reader with too much detail. A clear summary and review of key points should be included to reinforce the important lessons.

Literacy demand - This is often used as the sole criteria for readability. Reading level, which is only one level of literacy demand, can be assessed by a number of methods that combine counting the number of words per sentence, sentences per paragraph and syllables per word. Writing style, another aspect of literacy demand, requires using an active voice and conversational style to make text easy to understand.

Literacy demand also entails using a simple vocabulary with words such as "drive" instead of "operate," or "machine" instead of "equipment." Other aspects of literacy demand include using common, explicit vocabulary; giving the context before presenting new information; and making good use of headers and topic captions.

Graphics - Illustrations, lists, tables, charts, graphs and other graphic elements can reduce or increase suitability, depending on their quality. The cover pages of printed education materials can set the tone for a reader's attitude and experience and should accurately reflect content. Simple, relevant illustrations reinforce key messages and enable the reader to grasp them independently of the text. Clear headings and legends explaining the content of any tables, lists, graphs or charts should be used.

Layout and typography - These elements substantially influence the suitability of materials. Consistency in layout and sequence of information are vital. Visual cueing devices such as color, shading and boxing are used to highlight key points. Paper should have a non-gloss or low-gloss surface, providing high contrast with text.

For typography, 30 to 50 characters and spaces create an ideal line length. Type in all capital letters slows reading comprehension. Subheadings or "chunking" help make information easier to understand and remember.

Learning stimulation/motivation - Effective materials should appropriately stimulate and motivate the reader to learn. One technique to stimulate readers is to present them with questions or problems and have them make choices to solve the problems. Another option is to provide appropriate examples or models of the desired behavior. For example, content for safe lifting should explain the proper way to use the back and legs during lifting. Finally, bear in mind that small, realistic activities that provide opportunity for success are more likely to motivate people than large, complex and intimidating tasks.

Cultural appropriateness - How culturally appropriate materials are will determine whether some readers identify with them. A valid measure of materials' cultural appropriateness is how well the logic, language and experience match that of the audience. Examples for a manufacturing workforce may differ from those for a managerial group. Moreover, images and examples appropriate for a given culture will increase materials' suitability.

The right design

Employee safety training and education impacts workers' knowledge, attitudes and behavior. The audience for employee training materials is diverse and, in many cases, limited in literacy skills. When evaluating print and other educational materials, companies should emphasize their suitability for the given topic and audience in achieving training objectives.

Many employers currently use limited evaluations, such as reading-level assessments, to determine the appropriateness of materials. However, the suitable information design techniques described herein should be applied to employee training and education, including verbal, print and new technology methods.

SIDEBAR - Structure, story and style

Using the "suitability approach" to design safety training materials, three key principles can be employed: structure, story and style.

1) Structural principles

  • Make sure key concepts pop out and are a "quick read."
  • Present information, including text, art and design, in a consistent manner.
  • Simplify the information to the greatest extent possible.
2) Story principles
  • Remember that "art + text = more than the sum of their parts."
  • Make sure there's an art/text synergy.
  • Use characters with whom readers can identify.
  • Involve the reader through use of interactive elements and other devices.
  • Use metaphors and play-on-words judiciously.
3) Style principles
  • Emphasize the use of accessible language.
  • Use headings that can be read like prose.
  • Feature appropriate art styles.