Communication Currents

Risky Jobs: Communication and Occupational Safety

August 1, 2008
Organizational Communication

The availability of safety information and the willingness of individual workers to seek it out play an important role in safety. In the workplace, employees have to believe that there is reliable and useful safety information available before they can be expected to seek it and act on it. This is important because workplace injuries and fatalities have many ramifications beyond individual suffering. Families, employers, and communities are affected. Dangerous working conditions pose threats to the safety and livelihood of workers. Communication researchers are interested in what motivates individuals to seek out information in conditions of high risk that can lead to successful safety outcomes. Examples of risky jobs include those in manufacturing and construction. One way to address these issues is to provide at-risk individuals the information, skills and resources that can help them stay safe on the job.

photo - men in hardhatsResearch indicates that workers' risk perceptions should be considered in conjunction with their efficacy beliefs or their degree of confidence in their ability to stay safe. Workers who feel capable in their ability to deal with risks may view those risks as challenges to be overcome. Alternately, workers lacking in efficacy may interpret themselves as vulnerable. Accordingly, individuals with high efficacy will respond differently to a given threat than would individuals lacking in efficacy. For example, employees in industrial settings who believe that wearing proper safety protection (such as safety glasses, earplugshard hats) and abiding by safety rules will keep them safe will have a sense of safety efficacy.

Based on individuals' risk perceptions and efficacy beliefs, four groups can be distinguished that communication researchers can target for specific messages. Responsive individuals are those with high perceived risk who also possess high efficacy beliefs. These individuals are aware of their risk status and believe they have the required skills to prevent a workplace injury and are the most motivated in enacting self-protective behavior. Avoidant individuals are characterized by high risk perceptions but low efficacy beliefs. Their high risk perception makes them concerned about their safety, but their low efficacy beliefs reduces their ability to address their safety behaviors and communication patterns. Proactive individuals have low risk perceptions but high efficacy beliefs. They are not motivated by their perceived risk as much as their desire to remain injury free. Finally, those with low perceived risk and low efficacy beliefs are likely to be the least motivated. They do not believe they are vulnerable nor do they believe in their ability to avert an injury and are characterized as indifferent. By distinguishing the risk and efficacy beliefs of workers, communication researchers can make predictions about safety information seeking and general safety behaviors.

A recent study by Kevin Real examined the communication patterns, risk perceptions and efficacy beliefs of a random sample of workers in a large manufacturing plant. The survey-based research examined employee perceptions of safety information availability, information-seeking intentions, and safety behaviors as they related to risk and efficacy. Results were primarily consistent with theory and contained some important practical applications as well. On the whole, workers with higher efficacy had more positive safety behaviors, such as wearing safety glasses, and safety information-seeking patterns than workers with lower safety efficacy. The four attitudinal groups (responsive, avoidant, proactive, indifferent) reported outcomes in line with prior theory. That is, proactive and responsive workers were more likely to wear safety equipment, follow safety guidelines, seek out safety information, and believe that safety information was available than those workers in the avoidant or indifferent groups. These groups could be segmented according to their risk-efficacy profiles in order to provide them targeted safety messages.

The findings of the study also indicate the importance of safety information availability to workplace safety. When safety information is available, workers will seek and use it to reduce their occupational risks. In many organizations, critical information is not always made available to workers. Unshared safety information can lead to lower levels of safety efficacy and higher levels of risk perceptions.

How can organizations effectively communication safety information? First, organizations can get personal by using first-line supervisors to deliver safety-related messages, both in word and by example. Informal and anecdotal data from this plant indicate that workers preferto receive important information verbally from their immediate supervisor. Workers from both the avoidant and indifferent groups may benefit more from direct supervisor contact, especially if this communication was designed to increase safety efficacy. Having direct interaction about safety with the same individual in charge of productivity conveys its importance. Supervisors could make more safety information available to responsive and proactive individuals as a way of helping these individuals meet their personal safety goals.

Second, safety information works best if the messages are simple. Organizations can provide good safety information without detail overload. Safety messages that are overly detailed, contain too much information about too many procedures, and do not differentiate the more important activities run the risk of being ignored. On the other hand, straightforward messages that are focused and prioritized can be powerful. Keeping it simple will work for the indifferent and avoidant groups, both of whom score low on safety efficacy. Too many details are likely to create barriers to improving efficacy. On the other hand, the door should be left open to making more information available for responsive and proactive individuals, who are more likely to want to seek more information and will do so when they know that it is available. Making safety information available can address possible cynicism or suspicion that indifferent individuals may feel toward the organization's safety programs.

Third, it is important for organizations to encourage positive safety behaviors and develop messages that focus on how to initiate pro-safety behaviors. For example, messages emphasizing the initiation of new safety behaviors (wearing earplugs) are more likely to be successful than those that focus on the cessation of certain behaviors (no horseplay). Messages which increase risk perception and threats would likely be ineffective for members of the avoidant or indifferent groups. Instead, these groups would benefit from messages designed to increase their safety efficacy beliefs. At the same time, it is likely that positive safety messages would reinforce the already established safety efficacy of the responsive and proactive groups.

Fourth, safety messages should be delivered through more than one medium. In this sense, it is not multiple messages that are necessary but multiple delivery methods. By asking workers to engage a safety message in different ways (watch it, hear it, read it), practitioners can better ensure that more workers receive it. This would work for all four groups but particularly for the avoidant and indifferent individuals who tend to be less interested or engaged in safety in general.

Communication researchers continue to work on how to motivate individuals to seek out reliable information that will lead to better safety and health outcomes. Designing messages targeted at specific receivers can be one way to increase the likelihood that individuals can live better lives.