According to the results of the American Society of Safety Engineers 100th Anniversary Essay Contest, the greatest challenge facing the environmental health and safety profession in the 21st century is communication. One of every four essays specifically called out this challenge. See essays at The winning essay, “Two Paper Cups and a String,” by Joann Robertson acknowledged there are larger challenges than communication, “… but this problem reduces effectiveness of all safety professionals.” 

Impacts everything

Joann’s observation is on target. We cannot interact without communication. All of the other ASSE greatest challenge essays, such as keeping pace with technology, resource limitations, behavioral, future health, and accountability allude to problems with communication. If communication is so important, how do we get better at it?

Government’s lead

The Plain Writing Act of 2010 is the U.S. government’s center-piece legislation to better communicate with its citizens. The act “requires the federal government to write all new publications, forms, and publicly distributed documents in a ‘clear, concise, well-organized’ manner.” Effects of the act are appearing now and a major deadline is near. By October 13, 2011 agencies must use plain language in any document that is necessary for obtaining any federal government benefit or service or filing taxes; provides information about a federal government benefit or service; or explains to the public how to comply with a requirement that the federal government administers or enforces. Also, annual compliance reports are to be written and posted on the agency’s plain language web page.

Plain language

A plain language initiative has been active in the government for years. For example, in September 1993, President Clinton issued Executive Order 12866, that among other things, required agencies to write regulations using plain language. The website is now the gateway for anyone to learn how to use plain language during communications. 

Plain language concepts developed by the government are finding their way into best practice communications that EHS pros use frequently. For example, if you link to <Tips & Tools> at the plain language website you will find “Tips for Starting Plain-Language Program.s” The first tip is “Make it SMART: Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Realistic, and have a Timeframe.”  EHS pros can find the SMART concept in Appendix F in ANSI/AIHA Z10-2005, “Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems.”

Lesson plan

The following lesson plan, that may take 4-8 hours to complete, will help EHS pros understand how to master communication best practices by focusing on a few key resources among the vast resources at the plain language website.

1. First, study the Federal Plain Language Guidelines, March 2011 (rev. 1 May 2011). Link to guidelines at plain language homepage

2. Next, from homepage above, link to <Examples> then link to <Before and After Comparisons>. At this site review the three examples for <Johnson Space Center manual>.  Examples show how a EHS manual should be written.

3. Understand SMART (see above).

4. From <Resources> link connect to <Take plain language training> and at <Free online training> link to and complete the NIH free <internet-based training course>. I’m not with NIH but at login I used “other” to complete the course and obtained a training certificate.

5. At <free online training> link above link to CDC <online health literacy training> or use direct web address This site is CDC’s Gateway to Health Communication & Social Marketing Practice. At this site understand <Audience>, <Risk Communication> and at <Tools & Templates> link to and review the “Simply Put” document under the Health Literacy category. Since EHS pros are part of the public health workforce, spend the majority of your time checking out communication practices at this CDC site.

Non-direct messages

While the above will help you communicate better, communication goes far beyond just how we write and speak. In the simplest terms communication means to send a message that is understood. A message may be sent in many ways. For example, a non-direct message may include your appearance, mannerisms or whatever. What’s your job title? How tall are you? Did you wear deodorant today? Are you a Republican or Democrat? We send non-direct messages all the time, often without considering them, to people we must interact with. Knowing how to use non-direct messages is more art than science.


The best way to help master non-direct messages is to get honest feedback from people who care about your success. A snide or even hurtful remark from someone who does not care about your success may also be valuable feedback that you may act upon. To get feedback ask, audit, measure or whatever. Listen to find out if messages that are sent are properly understood and being complied with. Expect to spend much more time and effort getting feedback than it took to send messages.

Communication killer

Non-direct messages can be a communication killer. Consider the Plain Writing Act and the plain language guidelines described above. Are they good ideas that transcend politics? Ann Leuthesuer of the Heritage Foundation wrote the article, “Is Plain Language the New Newspeak?” for on May 24, 2011. Among other things, Ms. Leuthesuer believes that guidance on plain writing is “condescending to the American people” and guidance, such as when to use “passive voice” is a way to “keep citizens from misdirecting their frustration toward the government.” She concludes that the Plain Writing Act shows the federal government is “talking down to the American people” and the Act is just another “new level of bureaucracy.”  

HazCom messaging

Expressing views makes America what we are. But sometimes we must shelter these views to meet objectives. Assume for the moment that you support Ms. Leuthesuer’s views. Could there be any communication pitfalls in implementing new or upcoming requirements such as OSHA’s hazard communication standard that adopts global harmonized communication practices for chemicals? 

You may say or write the correct message to achieve compliance, but if your body language or whatever sends non-direct messages that a new requirement is just “another level of bureaucracy,” employees may act as though compliance is not that important. Remember, communication breakdown may occur not in what you say or write, but in the hazy world of non-direct messages. Again, correcting wrong or poor non-direct messages will involve more art than science.

Continuous improvement

Problems with communication do reduce the effectiveness of all EHS pros. Whether you feel it’s your greatest challenge or not is open to debate. But communication in all its forms, perhaps most importantly persuasion, will be a daily and lifelong challenge. This said, there may be no debate that all of us must continually get better with our communications. Give me feedback if this message got through.