Tips for effective safety communication in hazardous industries
Working in a hazardous environment means working with the possibility that a dangerous incident might occur at any moment. To reduce that threat, there are safety protocols and various equipment that can detect, warn and mitigate dangerous situations. Regardless of which measures you choose, effective communication is essential to make sure workers are safe at all times.
The message matters
Messaging before, during and after an incident is critical to keeping workers safe. If the message or instructions are complex or confusing, the risk of injury or worsening the incident increases.
Communication tools come in all forms, including written instructions, warnings and alerts. The messages used for those types of communications must be clear and easily understood. The placement of these messages is equally important. For instance, marking off a “no traffic” zone does no good if the message becomes obscured by placing boxes over it.
Brevity and clarity are also key to verbal communication. Whether delivering a message in person or via communications equipment, what is said must be well thought out and organised, and expectations must be made clear. Communication channels must be kept as clear as possible during an incident to allow messages to get through. In high-noise environments, it may be necessary to use a two-way communication system to keep teams on the same page.
Identify and eliminate barriers
Communication barriers always create problems, regardless of how the communication is happening. Obstacles can come in many forms.
Too much information
If multiple lines of communication come at once, the person or people receiving them are unlikely to get a clear sense of what needs to happen. Clarity of communication applies to written and verbal communications.
Employees who are bombarded by messages will tend to merge them or become selective in what they hear. Confused messaging can lead to several employees taking actions that contradict each other or ignoring important messages. With written communications, multiple streams of instruction or advice can confuse employees and even create a hazardous incident threat.
Some messages in a hazardous environment are easy to process and understand. “No Smoking”, for instance, is difficult to confuse. Not all messages are as easy to process.
Is the organisation’s evacuation plan explicit regarding where employees must go in an emergency? Have employees been instructed so that each knows their role in responding to an emergency? When giving verbal communications, are these brief and to the point?
The answers to these questions can mean the difference between an effective response and a response that increases the danger or harms employees.
It is important to listen to and investigate situations that employees say pose a risk. Listen carefully to employee feedback, in order to get a full picture the situation. Ignoring employees' communications can lead to a dangerous environment, but worse, it can also lead to them ignoring what leaders have to say.
Have a written game plan
As important as it is to be able to communicate during an emergency incident, it is just as important that to have a written plan in place before the emergency happens. Employees need to know what to do — step by step — and have a reference for acting in the heat of the moment. Making it clear to employees includes inventorying any areas that could harm their safety.
Make sure all containers are clearly labelled. Clear labelling is vitally important for chemicals. Employees should never have to guess what might be in a container, even if the substance in the container is non-hazardous.
Every chemical should have a corresponding data sheet. Datasheets help inform employees what they are working with and log any activities that include those substances. It is also a good idea to have incident response instructions for every chemical and to have those instructions marked and out in the open.
Increase and enhance training
Training for handling hazardous materials or responding to incidents is the easiest way to ensure that employees avoid dangerous situations and know what to do should one occur. Training should be regular and ongoing for new and older employees. Retraining should also be part of the system, so employees have what to do fresh in their minds.
In addition to standard and emergency operating procedures, employees should be trained in:
- what hazardous chemicals they work with;
- when new hazards get introduced into the workplace;
- how to respond to incidents, including when and how to evacuate;
- required protective measures;
- contact information in the event of an incident;
- emergency response and first aid.
When a hazardous situation emerges, employees should receive spot training if their response is insufficient. That training should reiterate what those employees are to do if the situation ever arises and how to avoid the situation in the future.
No hazardous workplace communications plans are perfect. Even with thorough planning to make sure that employees can respond to a hazardous emergency effectively, mistakes can still be made. That is why training regimens require constant drilling and practice.
Additionally, new challenges are constantly emerging. Emergency plans and communications structures must be ready to respond to new situations at a moment’s notice. An emergency plan can be an impediment and even dangerous if the plan is outdated.
All employees should be required to review the plan regularly and practise what is in it, so it is fresh in their minds when and if they have to use it. Do not rely on employees remembering training they had six months ago. At the least, training should happen quarterly, and, in some cases, beyond legal requirements, training refreshers should happen monthly.
Do not ignore non-verbal, non-written communications
Sometimes, the best way to communicate in a loud environment is via hand signals and employee placement. Non-verbal signals are particularly important in evacuation situations. If possible, work out with employees how to signal each other if verbal and written communications are impossible. Also, make sure that standard non-verbal communications are known to all employees.
These tips will go a long way to ensuring communications are as streamlined and easily understood as possible.
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