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  • Dorothy Saristavros: Are you effectively communicating risks to your audience?


    Dorothy Saristavros is the Director of DS Construction Engineering Pty Ltd and a Fellow and Chartered Engineer with Engineers Australia. She is also an occupational health and safety consultant with over 30 years experience as a project and construction manager. Her consultancy specialises in delivering health and safety training to construction personnel. Dorothy is Co-Chair of the Risk Engineering Society Victorian Chapter and Secretary of the Australian Cost Engineering Society, Victorian Chapter.

    Why is it important for risk engineers, managers and other professionals to know their purpose when communicating risk to others?

    To achieve meaningful outcomes and influence the audience, it is important for risk engineers, managers and others to know the purpose of their communication. Missing the mark of the communication is a risk that may result in ineffective communication that could lead to misunderstandings and result in negative outcomes. From a legal perspective, it’s very important that managers and engineers effectively communicate risks to their audience because it’s a legal requirement to identify hazards and reduce or eliminate them.

    Some time ago, I witnessed a person attempting to remove a slice of bread from an energised toaster with the aid of a knife. I switched the power point off and disconnected the plug from the socket, saying: “What are you doing? No knife in the toaster!”

    The next day I witnessed the same person attempting to remove a slice of bread from the toaster using a fork. Much to my amazement I asked: “What are you doing?”

    The response was: “You said ‘no knife’.”

    The instruction I gave had been followed to the letter. A mini training session explaining the reasons for the instruction, discussing the source of the hazard, how to eliminate the hazard, and the possible consequences would have been more effective in influencing the behaviour of my audience.

    Can you explain why it’s important to understand how risk communication modes (information, instruction, training and consultation) relate to this purpose?

    The purpose of communication may be to:

    • impart information to develop awareness of risks
    • give instructions to be followed as to how to control risks
    • conduct training to achieve the knowledge and skills required for effective risk management
    • undertake consultation regarding making decisions on risk identification and management.

    Understanding the important differences between these modes of risk communication can help avoid misunderstandings, such as the speaker and listener not knowing what to expect from one another. For example, information is delivering facts or statements to the audience. In contrast, instruction is an order to be acted on, or delivering a message consisting of a series of steps to be followed by the audience to complete a task.

    Training improves peoples’ skills and capabilities. It builds on instruction, explaining and demonstrating what the task is, the tools to be used, and the expected standard to be met by the audience. As the training process is repeated, it should be monitored and evaluated until the audience can conduct the task independently and to the designated standard.

    Consultation is a process where the team or stakeholders collaborate in the decision-making process. For example, as an engineer I might decide how to train personnel to do the task but miss the opportunity to ask them how it should be achieved. I could miss out on a wealth of knowledge by not tapping into their suggestions for planning and the risks to be considered.

    How important is it for engineers and managers to know their audience when communicating risk?

    Knowing your target audience is imperative. The audience determines the risk information you communicate, and the language and manner of delivery. For example, engineers have a different technical vocabulary to tradespeople.

    One important way of understanding your audience is consulting with them to get to know more about their skills, experience and exposure to different types of projects. You can also tap into body language and eye contact to see if they are engaged with your communication style, or seek feedback to establish how well they have understood the information and developed the skills required.

    The risk being communicated can also influence the audience you choose to communicate with. For example, risk engineers would do best to confer with both design engineers and trades professionals, who can offer hazard and risk identification from their different perspectives. Early identification of risks from the perspectives of a greater audience can minimise situations that lead to project delays, variations, budget blowouts and safety issues.

    What might stand in the way of effective risk communication?

    The audience needs to be receptive. Some stakeholders may not be aware of how the law is applied in relation to ‘reasonably practicable’ measures to reduce safety hazards, and therefore have a higher risk appetite. For example, a construction worker may associate a ‘tougher’ image with a high-risk appetite. Or a project manager might be running behind schedule and not want to consider risks because of time constraints.

    When communicating with any audience, it is important to relate to them as much as possible by using examples they can connect with and/or remember.

    Are there any resources you can recommend for risk professionals, managers and engineers wanting to learn more about this topic?

    The OH&S Act specifically uses information, instruction, training, consultation, monitoring and maintenance of systems of work as distinct terms that need to be considered and addressed. So, it is important for risk practitioners, engineers, and managers to be aware of these legal requirements and duties.

    There is also information on how to effectively communicate risk in ISO 45001:2018 Health and Safety Management System. Formal training to improve risk communication in the workplace, these two modules may be useful:

    Can you offer any other advice on how to identify your audience and purpose for risk communication?

    Investing resources such as personnel and time to plan and prepare for meetings to communicate to various audiences regarding a project and asking the following questions would be useful.


    • Who should we be communicating to?
    • Who are we talking to?
    • Is there a gap?
    • If there is a gap, how can we address it?


    • What do we need to communicate and why?
    • Is all information available, relevant, current and accurate? (e.g. permits, drawings, specifications, schedules and instructions)
    •  What is the most effective way to ensure the information is understood, accepted, and followed?
    • Have we identified the work environment, plant, substances, systems of work and personnel required to deliver the project/task to the standard and quality specified?
    • For consultation, can the audience add to the planning of the job by adding any known/unknowns, unknown/knowns or any combination of these through their own knowledge, experience and project exposure?

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