How to improve safety communication at work

A new research study in Belgium has made some important findings about chemical safety communication in the workplace.

The study, entitled “Workers’ Perception of Chemical Risks: A Focus Group Study,” was published in a recent issue of Risk Analysis, the journal of the Society for Risk Analysis.

These are the key findings of this study:

  • Workers view working with chemicals as dangerous and are seriously concerned about long-term health effects, but they nevertheless accept safety risks as part of job and don’t think there’s much they can do about it.
  • Communication barriers often exist between management and employees, which pose serious obstacles to effective hazard communication.
  • Workers feel management doesn’t listen often or seriously enough to their concerns and suggestions for improving workplace Safety and Health.
  • Workers’ perceptions about chemical risks are insufficiently taken into account when workplace Safety and Health programs are developed.
  • Employees frequently fail to refer to the MSDS or label because they say this information is often too hard to understand and not easy to use.
  • When workers have a question about chemical hazards or precautions, they are more likely to turn to co-workers for answers than their supervisor or the MSDS. “Instead of relying on highly technical fact sheets on toxic risks,” says lead author Ramona Hambach of the University of Antwerp, “many workers turn to the anecdotal experiences of their peers to guide their actions, including choices to wear personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves.”

So the findings indicate that there’s a lot of room for improvement in hazard communication.

Here are some suggestions to ensure more effective hazard communication:

  1. Train supervisors and safety personnel to communicate hazard information and safety procedures effectively. Also train them in general communication skills so that they can interact more successfully with employees.
  2. Encourage employee participation in the development and implementation of workplace safety and health programs—for example, through safety committees and other team initiatives.
  3. Welcome employee suggestions about ways to improve chemical safety in the workplace. Take their concerns and suggestions seriously and incorporate them into safety programs. Remember that to be truly effective, hazard communication must involve two-way communication.
  4. Emphasize safety protections as well as hazards in hazard communication and other chemical safety training programs. Make sure employees understand that working with chemicals is safe as long as they follow established work practices, use appropriate engineering controls, and wear assigned PPE.
  5. Provide intensive MSDS and label training. Teach employees how to find and interpret the information in the MSDS and on the label. Provide them with glossaries defining technical terms in plain language. Make sure that they are comfortable with their ability to understand and use chemical safety and health information. Your training effort is not complete until they are.
  6. Involve experienced, knowledgeable employees in training programs as trainers and coaches. These workers have a natural rapport with trainees, and they are also well positioned to provide practical information about how to perform the job safely and efficiently.
  7. Work hard to build trust between management and employees by demonstrating your commitment to employee safety and health every day. Involve top management in Safety awareness campaigns and feature Safety as a fundamental organisational goal.


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