How To Write Better Safety Messages: Condescension Edition

How To Write Better Safety Messages: Condescension Edition

Bill still disprove of the way safety people write. Let’s fix it.

Emails don’t have tone, right?

Sure. Ice cream doesn’t have any carbs either.

I read an email recently that had been sent to an entire company. It was written by some corporate guy with some letters behind his name and a fancy safety title. That part wasn’t too offensive (I have some fancy letters too). I might have even been able to overlook the scores of grammatical errors. But I couldn’t get past the way it sounded as I read the words.

The email was supposed to be a safety lesson that crews could discuss and learn from. But it was so belittling and condescending, that I doubt many got to the point.

Don’t be as stupid as THAT guy…

The message was about as simple and straightforward as you can get. It’s author was encouraging everyone to think about their PPE selection when dealing with sharp objects, gloves in particular. To illustrate the point, the author retold a story about a worker who had cut himself while wearing Kevlar gloves. The worker had been shocked that he had still been cut even though he had been wearing “cut proof gloves” (his words). The rest of the email essentially made fun of the injured man for being so ignorant as to believe there actually was such a thing.

After reading the email I wouldn’t be surprised if the the author had responded to the injured worker, “They’re cut resistant, you idiot.”

Not everyone knows what you know

The whole point, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, is that our people deserve better than being talked down to. Safety messages need to draw people in, teach them something valuable, and inspire them to act. They’re not a medium we should use to boast our superiority.

Think about that next time you send an email, write a safety message, or just talk to someone face to face. I’m pretty sure there was a time when each of us knew nothing about safety gloves and their limitations. Maybe we should realize that about other people too.

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How To Stop Writing Sucky Safety Procedures: Brevity Edition

If you’ve ever used words like minutia or circumspect in a document, this one’s for you (but congrats on your big vocabulary).

Bill is back. We’re still not good at this.

If you’re new to this series, you can read the first three parts HERE (Execution Edition), HERE (Understanding Edition), and HERE (Ego Edition)

One of my favorite books is On Writing, by Stephen King. I’ve actually read it more than once, which for me is a rarity. In it he discusses his distaste for adverbs and the need to “kill your darlings.” I think that’s just as important for stories and characters as it is for the words we use in procedures.

“Omit needles words.”

-The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White

You may not think there is a lot of similarity between writing a horror novel and writing a safety document, but I’d be willing to have that debate. Writing is writing. It’s just that some of it is boring as hell to read. If you accept that going in, your chances of getting someone to read your magnificent safety epic are that much greater.

For the love of all that is good, don’t make it an epic, though…

Be direct, be concise, and say what you mean. Here are a few common problems I see with the volumes of safety programs I have seen over the years:

  • Pages of exposition and explanation about who, why, what, when, where, and how
    • Safety Professionals are desperate to explain the justification behind what we write. I think maybe it’s a bit of overcompensation designed to prove to our people that we really care and we’re not just asking because OSHA said so. Those explanations are great, but here’s a newsflash. NO ONE reads them. Save the all important WHYs for training and face to face interactions. It will stick better that way anyway. No one wants to read BLS statistics (admit it, you don’t either) before they head to the job.
  • Confusing decision trees, charts, and pages upon pages of appendices
    • If your document reads like a choose your own adventure novel, your reader will most likely get eaten in the jungle by a rabid species of crocodile long thought to be extinct. Keep it simple.
  • Assuming “they get it”
    • The average worker does not think like a Safety Professional. That’s not a knock, it’s a fact based on roles. We are charged with identifying hazards, analyzing risk, and working to help provide solutions. Most positions in an organization are not that abstract. They’re task based. Align your writing style to that of the worker and you’ll get a lot more millage out of it.

There’s a lot more to talk about

But in the interest of keeping this post brief, I’m going to leave it to you for now. Look through your guidance documents and ask the questions yourself. Are they too long? Are the directions understandable?

Just remember, there’s always something to take out. If your safety manual is 150 pages or more, consider how many people actually know what’s in it. How much more effective would it be if it were 30? That may sound like a pipe dream, but it’s entirely possible.

If you struggle getting safety documents and guidance to stick, I’d be happy to help. Email me at if you’re interested in a consultation. As always I’ll continue this topic in the weeks to come. There’s a lot to unpack.

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How To Stop Writing Sucky Safety Procedures: Ego Edition

I thought about calling this one “proudity edition,” but I doubt many would appreciate the irony…

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is shakespeare-67698_640.jpg
Keep writing bad stuff, keep getting this look

A thought occurred to me the other day whilst (I’m using that word for my UK Friends, and also for the fact that I’ve been using a pic of Shakespeare in this series) I was pondering our state of being in the safety world. When you think about it, ours is really a weird profession. Seriously… it’s not hard to imagine why some people think hiring a safety professional is the corporate equivalent of a stupid warning on a hair drier. Especially if you think safety is just “common sense.” It’s no wonder those people hate the “safety guy.”

Awww. But that’s what I bought it for…

Safety doesn’t have a defined purpose in most organizations. In fact, as The Safety Minimalist Dennis Baker wrote this week, most of us “safety professionals” don’t even know how to define what we do. I believe that identity crisis stems from the fact that most companies only employ safety professionals because they have to. In those cases, the purpose of those safety professionals is solely OSHA compliance, regardless of what the corporate drones might say.

In that context, it makes sense that our policies and procedures follow that mold.

And so… employees shall…

How many of you are guilty of writing a line like that? I have been. I’m not too proud to admit it. I’ve also sat at my desk and foolishly scribed shit I just knew would make mine the safest site on earth… We need to quit it.

Like I said, ours is a weird profession. On one hand we’re expected to act in the company’s interest to avoid costly legal compliance-related expenses. On the other, we’re expected to influence and persuade people to work safely in their own interest. It’s a constant state of conflict.

People aren’t all that great at conflict, though. So, easy usually wins over great. Because great is hard. OSHA is easy. Hence the volumes upon volumes of policies and procedures telling employees what they “shall” do. It’s easier to write that than actually provide them meaningful instructions.

That idiot must not care enough

Those have been reading since I started this thing may remember my old boss The Tongue. If you haven’t read that story, it’s a fun one (give it a click, you won’t regret it). He was a jackass for sure, but I’m not above giving credit where it is due. The Tongue was a notably intelligent man. He never missed an opportunity to tell you that either. Usually by using his knowledge of big words to belittle those who weren’t on his level.

His writing was no different. It was filled with long, scientific descriptions and complicated equations. The directions were perfectly suited for industrial hygiene graduate students, but missed our target audience entirely. Most of his contributions to the site safety program took me two or three readings. Our carpenters and general laborers had neither the time nor patience for it. He was the boss though. So we printed them, put them in binders, and watched them collect dust.

All we had to do after that was wait. It never took long though. The Tongue had a keen eye for spotting violations. When he did, the poor soul in the wake of his wrath would quickly learn how stupid he or she was and informed of their general lack of care for safety. It was a sad, vicious cycle. The Tongue would write a procedure, the staff would not read it, The Tongue would get angry, and repeat.

He never got out of his own way

Just as I mentioned in my first edition about writing better safety procedures, success means first understanding that you’re not writing for yourself. You could write the most eloquent, academic, compliant, innovative masterpiece. But if no one reads it, you might as well never even try. Give your people instructions, simple instructions, they can and will use. All the big words you wanted to use instead can wait for your doctoral thesis or your blog on proudity.

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