In a comment to a recent blog article Gregor McGhee asked:
“Just out of curiosity can you recommend any books for comparison with respect to presentation, footnotes, references and endnotes?”
Most books related to occupational health and safety (OHS) are written by academics for an academic audience so there are clear referencing protocols and styles with which that readership will be familiar and comfortable. The challenge comes when academics are asked to write for a lay audience for whom concepts must be explained and backgrounds and context provided.
But there is a similar challenge to OHS regulators who provide guidance material that often derives from academic research but also for the legalities of safety legislation. SafetyAtWorkBlog was able to talk with Jackie McAdam, a freelance editor, designer and writer who has worked for the UK’s OHS regulator, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
Format and Language
NIOSH has a program of Research to Practice (R2P) where research grants are given, or work commissioned, on the understanding that the research will also be “translated” into a format and language that allows for the research findings to be applied in the real world. NIOSH says it:
“…..collaborates with partners and stakeholders to:
- Identify needs
- Design, plan, and conduct studies or evaluate technologies into workplace policy, procedure, technology, and/or practice
- Communicate and transfer NIOSH policy, procedure, or practices to relevant users for implementation in the workplace
- Evaluate or demonstrate the impact of these efforts on improving worker safety and health.”
Focussing on the communication element of the program fits with the OHS principle of consultation (although the whole R2P program is really consultation) with particular attention to the reader and audience. NIOSH has provided an excellent roadmap guidebook to assist writing research in this “new” way.
For more practical advice on the style of writing, governments often publish style guides or manuals. Australia has published such a book for fifty years and the recent 2002 edition remains a mandatory read for most government policy writers. The American Chemical Society publishes a guide of its own.
The UK Experience – Jackie McAdam
I have worked with HSE on and off since 2005 as both an editor and a designer. It’s important to clarify that these are my thoughts as an individual, but I do have a lot of experience and knowledge of how HSE operates and what the organization deems as important.
Early projects I worked on (which are still available online) include COSHH essentials, Asbestos Essentials and leaflets such as Working with substances hazardous to health: A brief guide to COSHH.
Who does HSE believe its audience to be? Business owners? OHS Professionals? Consultants? Or All of these?
HSE is well aware that OHS professionals use our guidance and information as a valuable resource, but our editorial style guide emphasises the need to use plain English to make publications accessible to workers and management too.
COSHH essentials, for example, has an initial sheet in each series aimed at managers, but the remaining sheets are intended to be used by everyone. A lot of guidance includes safety checklists for workers to make sure they are protecting themselves.
Despite the view of the UK in some respects as a nanny state, it’s important the workers take responsibility for actions that could put themselves and their workmates in danger. As an organisation, HSE does a lot of work with stakeholders to establish what happens in practice in the workplace. It’s all very well providing a perfect scenario, but that doesn’t happen in real life, and it’s about taking measures that are reasonably practicable and not coming up with a solution that’s disproportionate to the level of risk. I think that’s why our recent strategy events [#HelpGBWorkWell] were so successful at getting feedback from so many stakeholders. [link added]
How important is it to refer to previous editions of OHS documents or should each edition be considered brand new?
We try to discourage links directly to PDF documents in our publications, as the landing page gives vital information on what has changed since the previous version. It could be a change to the law, but sometimes we have just updated some of the references. Even if that information isn’t on the landing page, it should be on the first page of the document so read that first, it isn’t just sales blurb.
What are the most common criticisms of safety guidances from readers?
I don’t always get that feedback directly but I know that it’s crucial that we work with industry experts to get our facts and our language right. HSE’s long-term belief that plain English is crucial to making guidance easy to access has recently become the mantra of www.GOV.UK in marketing its ‘digital-by-default’ approach. You mentioned Australia’s style manual, I haven’t read it yet, but if you want to compare notes you could check out Gov.UK’s style guide at: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/content-design/writing-for-gov-uk.
There has been evidence that peer pressure prevents workers even reading guidance, so making sure it’s relevant to the target audience is top of the list. That’s about the way it reads, the way it looks and how it’s marketed.
How much “translation” is required and has this amount lessened over your experience?
As an editor with no specialist knowledge in health and safety, or the type of hazards we deal with, I have to check with my authors that I’ve understood the gist of what they are trying to convey before I edit their text. They get to approve every change to make sure I haven’t changed the meaning. My job is essentially to translate the technical jargon into something the person on the street can understand. Occasionally HSE has to use some technical language, but technical doesn’t mean academic; academic styles of writing can put people off. They simply don’t think it’s aimed at them.
I’ve also been asked to ‘translate’ the findings of research reports. For example, RR558 – Taking risks with asbestos: What influences the behaviour of maintenance workers? by the Institute for Employment Studies discusses worksite culture and the reasons that workers don’t recognize themselves as being at risk from asbestos. The report mentioned a greater concern for others than themselves, so I used language to remind them that the risks they took could affect their workmates or family to try and bring about behaviour change.
Did the HSE MythBusters program affect the writing style or strategy?
To be honest, no! When you work at HSE, you quickly realise how crazy some of these myths are. HSE’s line hasn’t changed, but Myth Busters was one way to get the public, and companies, to recognize when HSE was being used as a scapegoat for someone else’s over-cautious approach.
You mention in your review of Carsten Busch’s Safety Myth 101 that Carsten describes a Safety Culture that has been so misused that it has become a meaningless buzzword in many circumstances. There can be no doubt that this is the case, HSE’s press office is quick to rebut any over-the-top reporting of ‘elf ‘n’ safety gone mad’. Most of this in the UK tends to be in the tabloid press whereas I’ve noticed a change over the years towards more accurate reporting by agencies like the BBC.
Does HSE still produce hard copy editions of publications and guidances?
Not as many as we used to, but yes we do sometimes still print publications if there is enough demand for a printed version.
What about the future of OHS communications?
The future is digital – mostly. Yes, we will still print some publications, but like all things these days, it’s now about the immediacy of social media, responsive communications that can be read on the go on your smartphone rather than opening a book. Everyone expects the answer to any question to be readily available, and OHS is no exception. Essentially, we all want an app that can do that – and there is, for some things. Check out HSE’s asbestos app
When I’m asked what an editor does, which is a surprisingly common question, I do sometimes have to remind myself of how important our role is. We don’t write the stuff, necessarily, but we do make it readable by the right audience.
What about language that just doesn’t really tell you anything, but is just bluster and padding? Politicspeak, jargon, gobbledegook.*
One of the main jobs of an editor is to get rid of all that. Yes, we also make the text consistent, it doesn’t just read better, but it’s easier to follow; you set a precedent at the beginning of the text and you follow it through. We correct the grammar, obviously, but we also make the text make sense! OHS guidance could probably never be called a good read, but it doesn’t have to be a complicated one.
I am not sure that this answers Gregor McGhee’s question as the books mentioned above are not straight comparisons with Busch’s Safety Myths book. In some ways any safety book from a reputable and established publisher should illustrate the structure and protocols required. One of my points and why I contacted Jackie McAdam was to emphasise the importance of an editor in any work.
It is useful that Jackie is a graphic designer as well as an editor as this allows her to picture the end result as well as the information contained. Also she points out the crucial importance of communicating with the writers or source content providers to ensure you don’t misrepresent ideas in the translation from the technical to the readable.
Recently I spoke with Dr Rob Long when he was working through the proofs to his latest book , “Risky Conversations” and he was frustrated with the editing process required but also impressed by the complexity of editing. Editing is a skill and a trade and one that is becoming less common as more and more of the text production tools become readily available. But in most circumstances editing will still be a requirement even if it is to provide that final polish to a product or book.
Of course, like workplace safety, the best results come from having this role as early in the creativity and production processes as possible. Engaging an editor early in a project educates that editor on the text’s context, aim and point and builds a collaboration which avoids, mostly, a deadline panic, which can be an occupational hazard for all writers.
language that is meaningless or is made unintelligible by excessive use of technical terms.]