Communicating health and safety information

The art of effective communication is getting the right message (in the right format), to the right audience at the right time. The communication process can be thought of as a cycle, involving the message sender and the message receiver. At each stage there are potential barriers to effective communication

The message sender may not understand the subject matter well enough to be able to properly encode the message. The language may be inappropriate (too much jargon) or the pitch may be too complicated or too simplistic for the audience. The communication channel may be unsuitable, e.g. trying to explain a complex process through written description, when a pictorial approach would be simpler; or compromised, e.g. technical failures of telephone systems or email servers, or background noise interrupting face to face conversation.

The message receiver may not be able to properly decode the message because of:

  • unfamiliarity with the subject matter or technical jargon;
  • disability or illness;
  • impairment through drugs or alcohol;
  • wearing of personal protective equipment.

The feedback is subject to the same challenges as the original message with regard to communication channels.

Verbal Communication

May be direct (face to face), or indirect. Indirect verbal communication may involve sight of the message receiver (e.g. video conferencing) or may not (e.g. telephone call).

A great deal of direct communication is through non-verbal cues or body language; this is lost with a telephone call.

The merits of verbal communication are that it is immediate and provides an immediate opportunity for feedback and clarification. The limitations are that there is no tangible information for future reference, or evidence.

Written Communication

Historically the major limitation of written communication (traditional letters and internal memos) was the delay between stages of the process. Email has largely addressed this issue but has its own limitations e.g. circulating to too wide an audience so that ownership of the action is lost; and getting an appropriate, business formal tone to the message.

Written communication allows for complex messages to be conveyed and recorded, providing the reader with an opportunity to reflect on and revisit the message before determining the next course of action. With modern software applications it is easy to include complex diagrams and photographs within written reports.

Literacy levels can be a major barrier to written communication.

Graphic Communication

“A picture paints a thousand words”

The major limitation of pictorial communication is that without an explanation a picture is open to interpretation. The merits are: that well designed safety signs, conforming to international standards eliminate difficulties with language and literacy and convey a consistent message to an international workforce.

As well as considering the most suitable medium for the type of message consideration should be given to the preferences of the audience.

When following driving directions some drivers like to follow a map, others prefer written step by step instructions, and others listen to verbal instructions from a portable route planner.

With modern technology using combinations of media for any given message is easier than ever.

Use and Effectiveness of Noticeboards and Health and Safety Media

In marketing terminology communication that is aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position is termed propaganda and the media that is used to ‘sell’ the concept is termed collateral.

There are many tools and techniques available to help sell the importance of health and safety management within the workplace, including:

  • Health and safety notice boards
  • Employee handbooks
  • Toolbox talks
  • Videos
  • Posters

Health and Safety Notice Boards

A well-managed health and safety notice board can be an effective means of sharing information with the workforce.

Typically, the notice board would present the required statutory information, such as:

  • Health and safety law poster
  • Employers liability insurance certificate
  • First aid arrangements
  • Emergency arrangements – what to do in case of fire etc
  • The latest news, and specific local information, guidance and warnings

To be effective the information will need to be current and relevant; the content must be managed and the notice board kept in good order; and staff must be made aware that it is intended to be useful means of keeping them informed.

Toolbox talks

A ‘toolbox talk’ is a short presentation to the workforce on a single aspect of health and safety. The term originates in the use of the toolbox as a stage for the foreman to brief his team on the health and safety topic of the day.

The talk should: be relatively brief (10/15 minutes); should focus on a relevant health and safety issue (e.g. improving housekeeping, safe use of ladders, wearing of PPE etc.); and should have clearly defined SMART objectives so that progress against the intended impact can be monitored.

The person who delivers the talk should:

  • be a good speaker
  • be committed to what they say
  • know enough about the topic to be able to answer any questions that may be asked
  • be able to practically demonstrate skills where necessary

If the topic is relevant and the speaker is committed, toolbox talks can be an effective means of improving worker’s knowledge and encouraging worker participation in health and safety initiatives.

Employee handbooks

An employee (staff) handbook or manual is typically given to employees during their induction. The handbook contains information about company policies and procedures and may also form part of the terms and conditions of employment.

The employee handbook can be an important source of information about health and safety, e.g. the policy statement, the employer and employee responsibilities, hazard information, site rules and what to do if an accident or ill-health occurs.

To be successful handbooks should be written especially for employees, in plain English, avoiding jargon and using images and colours to attract the reader’s attention

The handbook should be used to support and reinforce induction and other training sessions – it should not be the only source of health and safety information.


Safety posters in the workplace can be a useful tool to promote safety and proved employees with a visible reminder of job hazards.

Posters are no substitute for proper training and procedures but can be useful in reinforcing existing information.

Posters can be serious and shocking or may try to attract attention through humour and cartoons. They should be displayed in the immediate vicinity of the issue they are intended to draw attention to; and should be changed regularly to remain current and topical.

With modern technology posters can be personalised to an individual workplace by incorporating company logos and banding and can be created in a totally bespoke way.

Training DVDs

Training films can be useful in providing a consistent message to workers in a multisite business without the expense of running formal training courses at multiple locations.

DVDs can be played individually through PCs or used for group sessions through a large screen TV or projector.

Training videos are very often used for new staff inductions but can also be effective in other areas such as the introduction of new technology or new policies and procedures.

As a visual medium training films can effectively convey the instructor’s visual cues – gestures, posture and facial expressions that aid communication and comprehension.

It is important to ensure that training films are relevant to the organisation and the specific audience e.g. a film of hospital patient handling may have little relevance on a manual handling course for engineering apprentices.

With modern technology filming in the workplace is more affordable and is becoming increasingly popular.