Risk Communication is Not Just for Disasters

By February 29, 2024 No Comments
By Dave Johnson, Phylmar newsletter editor

What do you think of when you hear the words “risk communication”?

Most likely disasters, crises, emergencies, large-scale losses or threats to public health and safety that receive heavy media attention and can damage corporate credibility and reputations.

Bhopal. Exxon Valdez. Deepwater Horizon. Tylenol poisonings. Love Canal. Chernobyl. Three Mile Island. Covid-19.

These are classic risk communication case studies. But they are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of all the possible types of risk communication plans and actions. “Nearly every time you stand up to give a presentation (as an EHS professional) it is risk communication,” says Mark Katchen, MS, M.B.A., CIH, managing principal of the Phylmar Group consulting, training and networking forums firm.

“There are different types of risk communication,” he says. “Not every risk communication plan is designed for a crisis.”

Here are in-house employee concerns that must be addressed in a form of risk communication far from a crisis risk communication plan:

A reposting on X (Twitter) is a lie that your hiring practices include discriminating against white male applicants.  It continues to be reposted.

Someone is saying there are massive layoffs coming.

There is a rumor going around that there is black mold behind the walls and employees have been getting sick (maybe true, maybe not). 

Multiple plans are needed for exchanges and presentations for management, employees, clients, communities, regulatory agencies such as the EPA, the media and activist groups. And this is not an all-inclusive list of stakeholders.

The umbrella terminology of risk communication that covers many different plans, messages, audiences, and scenarios is beyond the scope of this article. Phylmar Academy offers an in-depth “Risk Communication” course for environmental health and safety pros that explains the varieties of risk communication they may need to practice. The 5-hour e-learning course includes case studies, best practices, and how to draft a risk communication plan for a real or hypothetical situation.

Inside the fence line

The majority of EHS pros will assess and communicate risk issues that arise inside the company fence line. Don’t dismiss or overlook these more mundane and routine approaches to risk communication, such as regular industrial hygiene air and noise monitoring. Companies can face many EHS vulnerabilities that can create risks.

The Phylmar Academy® course list includes these:

  • Physical cues (odors, noise, visible plumes)
  • History of employee health complains
  • Poor work conditions/wages
  • Presence of dreaded substances
  • Poor facility housekeeping or appearance
  • Proximity to important scenic or cultural sites
  • Reports of health problems among school children or staff
  • Active presence of organized environmental groups
  • History of poor community outreach

The course includes case studies as well as three practicums in which you will put the training to use in 3 scenarios.

Here is list of potential in-house health risks:

  • Physical risks that can cause physical injury, such as exposures to slips, trips, falls, cuts, bruises, and burns; and exposure to hazardous substances, such as chemicals, dust, and fumes.
  • Chemical risks involve exposures to poisons, respiratory problems, skin irritation, and other health problems found in factories, laboratories, and construction sites.
  • Biological risks can cause illness or infection due to exposures to hazards such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. Hospitals, food processing plants, laboratories and farms can be breeding grounds for biological risks.
  • Ergonomic risks can cause musculoskeletal disorders triggered by exposure to repetitive tasks, awkward postures, and heavy lifting.
  • Psychosocial risks can cause stress, anxiety, sleeplessness and depression due to exposure to job insecurity, bullying, verbal abuse, harassment, harsh micro-managing, regular deadline pressures, inadequate staffing and long hours.
  • Violence is a risk that can occur in any workplace, but is more common in healthcare, retail businesses and law enforcement. Exposures can be created by customers, patients, co-workers and in some cases outside relationships involving workers.

Key actions when drafting a plan

Conduct a risk assessment converting vulnerabilities to scores.  High-scoring risks become priorities for risk communication plans.

Risk communication begins by identifying the risk.

Next, your inventory of risks is assessed for the likelihood of the risk occurring and its potential severity.

Identify your audience that is exposed to priority risks.

Mitigate and/or control high-priority risks.


Familiarity May Breed Apathy

Employees and other members of your organization are most likely to be your primary, if not sole, audience for your risk communication efforts. Risk communication might take the form of a one-on-one observation and feedback conversation. For example, an EHS pro may conduct a point of work risk assessment and identify that the worker is exposed to a high risk due to high probability (repetitive work on a stamping machine with a broken machine guard) and high magnitude (potential loss of fingers, hand or arm).

Employees are less likely to be hostile and outraged by an identified risk because they routinely work with that risk. “Employees can be apathetic or confused,” says Katchen. “They deal with a substance like benzene every day at exposure limits far below federal standards – there are no acute effects at that level.

“Typically workers find risks acceptable because they have been working with them for years. The exception, and where you can run into employee hostility, is in a case where a small group of their co-workers have become sick with disease associated with a workplace exposure. In my experience most hostility and outrage comes from audiences outside the fence line,” says Katchen.

Other Stakeholders

In addition to communicating risks to employees, you might be asked to make a presentation to senior management or the board of directors who want hard evidence of any EHS risks that could damage the company’s reputation, alienate customers, lose business or attract negative media coverage. When addressing senior leaders, keep your message short, be concise, make your strongest points at the end of the message, don’t use technical jargon, be sure of the accuracy of your data, and be honest. If you don’t know the answer to a question assure the questioner you’ll obtain the information being sought.

Phylmar Academy’s “Risk Communication E-Learning Course

Phylmar Academy’s  “Risk Communication” training addresses the positive tools and steps available to you as well as potential constraints on effective risk communication. You need to be aware of these challenges. Your messaging efforts might be hindered by inadequate resources, management apathy or hostility to your message, a difficult review and approval process, corporate legal protection requirements, conflicting organizational values and goals, and insufficient information to pan and set risk communication schedules.


Anticipating, identifying, evaluating and controlling risks is fundamental to the work of EHS professionals, in particular industrial hygienists. These basics of everyday EHS professional work are complemented by communicating to the appropriate audience the risks assessed, prioritized and mitigated or controlled. Employee concerns that are not risks to be prioritized still must receive accurate answers to avoid sliding employee morale, engagement and trust that can damage an organization’s business performance and labor relations.

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