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.
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.
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.
What is your main message? Answering the previous questions should make answering this one easier. State your message early in written materials and reiterate it later to drive your point home, Sinyai recommended.
Sometimes, training materials may need to translate health or regulatory issues into plain language. “Regulations, like other legal documents, are written primarily to stand up in court, not necessarily for clear communication,” Sinyai said.
He offered three recommendations for writing a targeted message. First, stay on point. Readers don’t want a lot of background information, he said, so stay focused on what you want readers to do.
Second, start with a summary. This can help keep your message on point. It’s also helpful for those people who only read the first paragraph and set it aside.
Use subheadings. For the same reason that you include a summary and state your message early in your document, subheadings help people who only skim the materials for key messages. Subheadings also make an intimidating block of text more manageable.
Test materials before sharing with a wider audience
Builders can also test safety materials with a small segment of their crews. Sinyai recommended that builders share drafts with a sample of their workers.
“You’re writing for them, not for yourself. They’re the ultimate authority on what’s clear and what’s not,” he said.
Testing materials with three or four different groups would get the most useful feedback, Sinyai said. He acknowledged that testing safety training materials can be a challenge, but “whatever you can do in testing will pay off,” he said.