What is “health, safety & environmental communication”? What is “risk communication”? How can we successfully communicate “environmental risks”?
As tension grew between several industries and local communities at risk over environmental pollution and human health, citizens, activists and governmental agency officials began to pay closer attention to the communication practices of the medium-to-large-sized companies and multinationals in describing these dangers.
In the last thirty years risk communication studies grown steadily as a consequence of the increasing complaints regarding the quality, trustworthiness and accuracy of the industry’s reports about risk issues and the interaction with affected communities.
But, how can we define risk communication? In general, we can say that risk communication is any public or private communication that informs people about the existence, nature, form, severity or level of acceptability of a risk.
In a more specific context, especially the one in which health, safety and environmental managers operate, the meaning of risk communication, as well as policies and strategies about how to communicate minor and major environmental risks to the public and stakeholders, has become more precise in its objectives and assumptions about the different target audiences that risk communication messages need to reach.
According to these two fundamental assumptions, health, safety and environmental managers should primarily understand their organizational communication needs, as well as the needs of information and participation of the local communities in which their companies carry out their business activity. They also should be able to facilitate a continuous and transparent dialogue with their company’s stakeholders about the technical issues related to public health risk and the core aspects on the psychological, political, social, and economic needs of the at-risk communities.
As credibility is the most valuable attribute of any good environmental, health and safety information source, environmentally and socially responsible companies and their HSE managers would need to be perceived as much credible and expert as possible in their industry by the public.
Moreover, they would also need to involve stakeholders more effectively in any key environmental issue, as more diverse information sources and higher levels of consumers interests are needed to explain key issues.
Sustainable companies should create and provide an environmental sustainability framework of principles and approaches for the communications of health, safety and environmental risk information to diverse target audiences, and their personnel should be properly trained in order to be able to respond effectively and promptly to any public concern about exposure to hazardous substances in the environment, or other enquiries about properties risk, or information about production risk and product stewardship.
Furthermore, such industrial businesses should prevent dangerous exposure and adverse human health effects with the help of their internal HSE managers and staff and external personnel, as well as improve the quality of life associated with possible exposure to hazardous substances from the industrial site, or unplanned releases, or other sources of pollution present in the environment near the plant.
This is an example of excellent corporate responsibility practice able to ensure that any sustainability decision is made using the best available environmental information.
Manufacturing and industry companies would need to understand that community residents, site personnel, citizen groups, HSE professionals, as well as local government officials are their first allies and source of information to effectively communicate about the health risks of exposure to hazardous substances.
These audiences could provide useful information on site background, community health concerns, demographics, information about natural resource use, environmental contamination and pathways, or other health outcomes.
Truly sustainable industrial businesses would need to understand that transparent information is needed from the community at several points in the overall health, safety and environmental risk communication process.
Involving the community in the information-gathering process makes any corporate communication more credible and sets the stage for stakeholder participation in identifying and solving problems that affect their lives.
In the end, the ability of industrial companies and corporations to reduce environmental hazards should depend less on the language used about technical risks than upon the ability of experts and communities to speak honestly to one another about fairness and who benefits and suffers from dangerous environments.