How to design safety training materials workers will read

A safer workplace starts with targeted messaging that workers can understand
A safer workplace starts with targeted messaging that workers can understand.

It can be difficult to distill complicated health information or regulations into plain language, but even simple, well-designed training materials are useless if workers don’t read them. That means companies have to create (or download) safety materials that will get workers attention and get them to take action to be safer.

“The fact is, there are many Americans who haven’t finished high school or who don’t read at a high-school level even if they did, or don’t speak English as a first language,” according to Clayton Sinyai, communication research manager for the Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR). That’s why many experts recommend that when you’re writing for the general public, you should write at an eighth-grade level, he said.

[Related: CPWR launches new safety and health network]

On a webinar for CPWR, Sinyai outlined best practices for safety training materials to make sure they’re doing what they’re designed to: create a safer workplace for builders.

Materials that illustrate key points and that are formatted to make reading easier, with bullet points, highlighted sections and a good balance of text and white space, are more useful to workers. If a document looks like a lot of work to read, Sinyai pointed out, it won’t get read.

Whether builders are creating their own safety training materials or evaluating materials provided by OSHA or other sources, there are four questions safety officers should ask themselves to make sure they’re getting the message across.

Who is your primary audience? Every audience has different needs, Sinyai said. One of the primary challenges for safety materials that aren’t created for a specific audience is that they’re overly broad, making it more likely that workers will skim the document and miss important information.

“If you want to prepare training materials, you need to start by identifying who your audience is,” he said, “so you can focus on that audience and their needs.”

What do you know about your audience’s reading skills and background knowledge? Education, language proficiency and background knowledge affect how well an individual absorbs information in safety materials. Even well-educated workers reading materials in their first language may not absorb jargon-heavy warnings right away. A health warning that says “asbestos can cause cancer” may be more readily understood than “asbestos is a carcinogen.”

There are several online readability calculators that let you copy and paste your text into a form that scans the material for confusing or frequently misunderstood words.

“But use common sense,” Sinyai noted. “If the word is used by your audience, it doesn’t matter if the computer thinks it’s a hard word. What you’re looking for are words that your audience is going to find hard. People in a particular trade will have lots of long terms that they’re perfectly familiar with.”

What do you want your audience to do? Identify specific actions that the audience should take after reading safety materials, Sinyai said. For example, a heat-safety poster may urge workers to drink extra water and take more breaks when working over a certain temperature.

[Related: Summer stress: Protecting workers from heat exposure]

Integrating visuals into the written materials is also a useful way to impart information without relying on text only. “This helps explain the practices and reinforce them by giving visual examples,” Sinyai said.

Danielle Andrus

Danielle Andrus was previously the managing editor for Colorado Builder, and is currently Editor for the Journal of Financial Planning.

Danielle Andrus has 343 posts and counting. See all posts by Danielle Andrus

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