In November 2009, Peter Sandman delivered the Berreth Lecture at the annual conference of the National Public Health Information Coalition (NPHIC). Significantly Sandman was asked not to present on risk communication but about his experiences in risk communication and how he came to prominence in the field.
The NPHIC has made the 65-minute video of his lecture available on-line. Sandman has the audio available through his website. The speech notes are also available but, as is his wont, Sandman diverges from the “script” frequently.
Sandman’s thoughts, techniques, research and commentary has a broad application through environmental, corporate, public health and OHS areas. In fact, his risk communication technique is a good illustration how each of these disciplines converge in the corporate process of risk management.
The Sandman video set was used in risk management tertiary courses in Australia in the 1990s and showed how risk management was pivotal to achieving an open and sustainable corporate culture.
The direct OHS relevance is most obvious through Sandman’s discussion of “precautionary advocacy“. [Excerpts of an audio interview I conducted with Peter Sandman in Australia in 2005 are available online)
In some ways, risk managers became over-confident in their significance for the corporation after seeing the Sandman videos because although their importance was evident, this importance still needed to be sold or justified to the senior executive teams. If the Board “got it” the corporation was better for it but if not, the risk management role was one of the most frustrating in the structure.
For a risk communicator, Sandman speaks with considerable candour. The following example from the speech illustrates this well.
“But I kept noticing that the good guys weren’t exactly honest either. In 1981 I started doing communication work with the American Cancer Society. One of the big ACS activities, then as now, was corporate smoking cessation programs. In order to help sell these programs to companies, we commissioned an economist to do a study of the economic impact of employee smoking on companies. We expected to show a big cost due to medical expenses. Instead, the study came out showing that employees who smoked actually saved their company money (pension money and healthcare money) by dying more rapidly after retirement. It simply wasn’t in a company’s economic interests to support smoking cessation.
What do you think we did with the study results? We suppressed them, and continued to tell companies they would benefit economically from sponsoring ACS smoking cessation clinics for their employees. I argued for candor, or at least for dropping the false argument. I lost. I was told pretty explicitly that public health was a higher value than transparency.”
SafetyAtWorkBlog is a big supporter of corporate openness and accountability and the example above should be remembered every time an organisation talks about the need for evidence-based decision-making. Sometimes evidence may flip a corporate strategy and a sustainable corporation is one that can cope with a changing reality. Denying the reality is likely to lead to a shameful corporate collapse and we have plenty of recent examples of that.