Communicating Performance to Increase Industrial Hygiene Program Engagement 

Industrial hygienists are very good at documentation, but most need to improve two-way communication.

If you were to ask business managers about the status of their business, they would discuss their profit margin, EBITA, percent growth in revenue or other common financial metrics. Ask a safety manager the same question and he or she would probably let you know about the number of days without a recordable injury or incident rate and how it compares with last year. But for those handling industrial hygiene, the answer to the question, “What is the status of your industrial hygiene program?” gets more complicated. Would they pull up a bunch of statistics? A list of SEGs? Perhaps, they would show their sampling plan for the year?

That is because identifying the best industrial hygiene (IH) data points, statistics, tables or diagrams that demonstrate the status of your program is hard. It’s been a long-running challenge for those handling IH and is believed to be a big reason why most stakeholders don’t understand what IH is or the value it brings to the business. Let’s look at some ways you can effectively communicate the status and value of your IH program to both workers and management to help strengthen engagement and buy-in.

Support Open Dialogue

Industrial hygienists are very good at documentation, but most of us need to improve our two-way communication. We generate lots of tables and charts of sample results and include them in quality reports, but don’t actually present our findings in-person and make time for dialog and discussion. All too often, reports generated for data users are just filed and eventually shipped to a salt mine for long-term storage without providing any real value for the business.

We learn in school or from our supervisors how to write great IH reports, but most of us have not received any real training on how to engage and collaborate with workers and management to communicate IH data in a meaningful way. All too often, we’re content to keep the details in our black box and just document our findings.

The problem with just documenting our findings and not having meaningful dialog about them is that workers and management will not understand why you conducted the monitoring or performed the risk assessments in the first place. If they don’t understand the “why”, they surely won’t understand the value you or the IH program brings to the business.

Visually Demonstrate Risk

A risk matrix is a valuable tool already in your toolbox that can also be used to visually summarize and explain exposure and worker health risks. That’s because, for most companies, risk matrices are typically already widely used by safety, quality and other departments across the organization to illustrate the status of their programs and related risks. So, why not use the same tools to convey IH information? Far too many IH professionals seem to believe they have to show a ton of complex data, statistics and fancy graphs to effectively communicate exposure risks. IH practitioners should, as a whole, get out of the “black box” mentality and simplify their messaging for both employees and management.

Risk matrices also take advantage of peoples’ existing visual and psychological cues. When presenting data, viewers’ eyes will be almost instinctively drawn to the red items, causing them to inevitably ask:

*What’s the job/activity in red?

*Do we have data confirming the risk levels?

*How are we protecting these workers today?

*How do we move the risk from a red to a yellow, or even green?

By presenting IH data using a familiar risk matrix, we now have an engaged audience that wants to have a dialogue and work with you to address those risks. It can also help grab the attention of management and secure approval for investment in workplace exposure controls.

A cloud EHS software solution with robust IH capabilities that simplify the coordination and control of your IH program will also help you communicate the value of IH across your organization. The best systems enhance the visibility of workplace risks and allow you to quickly generate detailed risk matrices that visually communicate risks to management. These systems also help you better visualize key data and reports in real-time to help you make faster, more confident IH management decisions.

Communicate Control Measures

Another way to leverage risk matrices is by using them to demonstrate the potential of having controls put in place. This is done by creating two matrices side by side, with one illustrating current risk and the other after risk controls are implemented. This will tell you the initial and residual risk.

Here, we can see the initial risk (before controls) on the left and residual risk (after controls) on the right. Looks great, right? Unfortunately, though, it’s never quite that simple. You must be armed with data to show what it takes to reduce those red items. When communicating control activities and effectiveness, you should also:

Present multiple alternatives. If you present only one control option, the only possible responses are yes or no. If you present multiple options, stakeholders are much more likely to assess the options in relation to each other and choose one of them rather than taking no action. They will appreciate the amount of work you did to provide options, and not putting them into the position where they are simply approving or disapproving a control measure for which they had no input. Present a financial analysis. Most of us are not experts on financial analysis, but we still should be able to provide some basic information about control alternatives, including:

*Price

*Return on Investment (ROI) – percent cost savings or benefits in dollars above the cost of the control over a specified time period

*Breakeven Point – how long does it takes for the benefits from installing the control to pay for itself, every day after the breakeven point translates to a cost savings for the company.

When gathering financial information, remember to add items such as increased production, improved quality, decreased loss of product, reduced PPE expense, fewer days away, etc. Sometimes those additional items have the biggest influence on supporting the investment for the control.

Improve the Resolution of Your Risk Assessments

To get the full picture of the status of your IH program, you also need to identify and illustrate your level of confidence with your QEAs. This is best indicated by an uncertainty rating assigned to each QEA.

Table 1: Extension of QEAs for determining Info Gather Priority Rating

In Table 1, line items with an uncertainty rating of zero indicate a high degree of confidence, while those with a 1 (uncertain) or 2 (highly uncertain) need additional investigation—thus, a higher info gathering priority rating.

Using the information in Table 1, you can quickly and effectively show stakeholders some key IH program insights, including:

*The current number of risk assessments and what level of risk they each have (e.g. high, medium, low)

*Details of the jobs, tasks, location and stressors that make up the health risks

*The degree of certainty with our health risk ratings

*Where additional resources are needed to improve the degree of confidence in the health risk ratings To ensure effective communication of risks, these values should be discussed with workers and management to give them ample opportunity to ask questions and have an open dialogue on the data. Ideally, this will instill greater understanding and appreciation of what IH is and its value to the business and ultimately strengthen engagement with your IH program.

Better Communication for Today and Tomorrow

If you struggle with communicating your IH program status with stakeholders, know that you’re not alone. However, it’s important to recognize the role communication plays in expressing the value of IH across your organization and gaining leadership support. A comprehensive IH program has many moving parts. Your SEGs, QEAs, sampling plans, lab analysis, reporting and MSPs and reporting all deserve equal focus. They should be carefully coordinated to ensure optimum IH program performance. IH is essential for protecting employees from injuries and illnesses, and communication is the cornerstone of demonstrating that value. Make sure your voice is being heard, and you’re being recognized for the significant contributions to overall business goals.

This article originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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