Last reviewed 3 October 2018

Effective communication is a vital element in the development of a positive safety culture. Mike Sopp discusses the general principles to be considered when developing a communication strategy.

It is essential to develop and implement effective communication processes that tell appropriate stakeholders what they need to know in a positive way about health and safety within the organisation.

As HSG65 Managing for Health and Safety notes, “to achieve success in health and safety management, there needs to be effective communication up, down and across the organization”. However, communication an often-neglected element of the management process, despite legal and good practice obligations to communicate.

Decisions on communication, including the “what, whom and how”, should be part of an overall health and safety strategy. This requires suitable planning, the selection of appropriate communication methodologies and a system of monitoring to ensure that the communication processes are delivering the required information to the required audience in an effective manner that achieves the desired effect.

The importance of communication

The Government Communication Service defines communication as “building relationships with others, listening and understanding them, and conveying thoughts and messages clearly and congruently; expressing things coherently and simply, in ways that others can understand, and showing genuine knowledge, interest and concern; bringing these aspects together to make change happen”.

Communication does not only have to take place with internal stakeholders such as directors, managers, employees or their representatives. External stakeholders may also have to be communicated with, such as business partners, investors, shareholders or enforcing authorities.

Effective communication supports the development of positive relationships with all stakeholders and can influence attitudes and behaviours in relation to health and safety.

The fundamental goal of health and safety communication is to provide meaningful, relevant and accurate information, in clear and understandable terms, to specific stakeholders. This in turn can:

  • promote awareness and understanding of the management of health and safety as well as specific risk issues

  • promote consistency and transparency in arriving at and implementing H&S risk management decisions

  • provide a sound basis for understanding the management of health and safety within the organisation

  • improve the overall effectiveness and efficiency of the implementation of the management system

  • contribute to the development and delivery of effective information, instruction and learning opportunities

  • foster trust and confidence amongst stakeholders in the health and safety management system

  • strengthen the working relationships and mutual respect among all participants in health and safety

  • exchange information on the knowledge, attitudes, values, practices and perceptions of interested parties concerning health and safety.

Considering a strategy

An integral part of any health and safety system is the development of a communication strategy. The general principles to be considered when developing a communication strategy are that:

  • communication processes maintain a steady flow of relevant, factual and timely information to key stakeholders up, down and across the organisation

  • communication strategies have a central strategic role in the overall management system and the management of risk by enabling the gathering and dissemination of information.

Gaining acceptance of the strategy within the organisation’s safety culture is dependent upon its integration with the organisation’s overall strategic and day-to-day health and safety management system. The key is to highlight that communication will assist in the delivery of the overall legal and good practice objectives of the organisation in a cost-effective way.

To be successful, a communication strategy will require the support and buy-in from senior management and will require them to “sign-off” that they accept the objectives and principles of the strategy.

When developing a communication strategy, aims and objectives should be clearly identified. These will be very much organisation-specific, but can include:

  • ensuring the full involvement and participation of stakeholders in health and safety management decision making

  • providing employees with information to ensure legal compliance and good practice requirements are met

  • influencing behaviour and attitudes in order to engender a positive safety culture and ensure the application of safe work practices

  • replacing fear, suspicion and ignorance with knowledge and understanding of the importance of health and safety

  • justifying any risk management decision-making process to stakeholders, including enforcing authorities

  • receiving, documenting and responding to relevant communications from external stakeholders.

Communication barriers

Barriers to effective communication exist; recognising those barriers and knowing how to overcome them are essential for effective communication. These will include, but not be limited to, the following.

  • Inability to obtain appropriate or accurate information. Lack of access to critical data about health and safety can make communication difficult to effectively achieve and can also impact the later stages of communication.

  • Stakeholder participation. Communication is successful when the message has been received and the appropriate action taken by stakeholders. This may fail if the appropriate stakeholders do not fully participate in the communication process.

  • Health and safety perception differences amongst stakeholders. This can be perceived in different ways. This can impact the success of the communication process, as the message may be ignored.

  • Receptiveness to the message. Many individuals believe they are personally less affected by health and safety than other people, and perceive that messages are directed towards other people.

  • Credibility of message source. Stakeholders do not equally trust all sources of information about health and safety. In situations where different messages are received from different sources, stakeholders will respond to the messages from the more credible source and discount the messages from the other sources.

  • Societal characteristics. Societal factors that can make communication more difficult include language differences, cultural factors, religious laws, illiteracy, poverty, a lack of legal, technical and policy resources and a lack of infrastructures that support communication.

Developing the strategy

Having identified the objectives, aims and barriers, the communication strategy can be developed. In doing so, the following elements should be given consideration.

  • Legal. The legal requirements to communicate and what needs to be communicated should be given consideration as this will influence the other elements below.

  • Audience. An effective communications system should identify the different groups of people with whom communication is needed, as they may have to be dealt with and approached differently. It should also determine if communication should be aimed at individuals or groups.

  • Messages. It is important for an organisation to be consistent in its message so that stakeholders learn to recognise and trust it. Messages may have to be targeted to particular audiences with varying levels of complexity to ensure understanding. The information should be objective, have clarity and be as simple as possible.

  • Messengers. The person or persons delivering the message can be as important as the message itself. Consideration should be given to making sure the right person delivers the message to the right audience. For example, this could be the senior manager responsible for health and safety addressing the company executive or it could be the local employee representative addressing colleagues. If necessary, training should be provided to the messenger.

  • Methods. The communication strategy should identify the most appropriate tools and activities for getting across a particular message. Developments in technology have increased the range of communication options in recent years. Intranet and email-based communications are probably now more important than traditional methods like printed newsletters.

  • Timeline. Communication strategies should include a timeline to ensure that appropriate messages are delivered at the appropriate time.

  • Resources. Adequate resources should be made available to enable the most effective methods of communication to be employed. Without the most effective methods being employed, the message may not “get across”.

Conclusion

Communication is an essential element of any H&S management system. The organization should, therefore, establish, implement and maintain procedures for:

  • internal communication at all levels up, down and across the organisation

  • communication with contractors, visitors and other persons allowed in the premises

  • receiving, documenting and responding to communcations from external stakeholders.

When communicating with stakeholders the organisation should identify and address any barriers that the current culture may introduce to good communications.

Typically the information to be provided will be in relation to the management’s commitment to H&S, the hazards and risks associated with work activities, the organisation’s aspirations and objectives for H&S, performance in managing H&S and details of any changes to the risk control systems being employed.

When communicating with external stakeholders, where possible, designated contacts both internally and externally should be identified to ensure consistency of approach.

Communication involves not only sharing positive messages. Where necessary bad news should be shared, but in a manner that identifies the organisation’s commitment to make changes.

Further information

Further information on communicating with employees can be obtained from the CIPD: www.cipd.co.uk.

HSL/2007/35: Effective Communication: The People, The Message and The Media: www.hse.gov.uk.