How To Stop Writing Sucky Safety Procedures: Brevity Edition
If you’ve ever used words like minutia or circumspect in a document, this one’s for you (but congrats on your big vocabulary).
Bill is back. We’re still not good at this.
One of my favorite books is On Writing, by Stephen King. I’ve actually read it more than once, which for me is a rarity. In it he discusses his distaste for adverbs and the need to “kill your darlings.” I think that’s just as important for stories and characters as it is for the words we use in procedures.
“Omit needles words.” -The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
You may not think there is a lot of similarity between writing a horror novel and writing a safety document, but I’d be willing to have that debate. Writing is writing. It’s just that some of it is boring as hell to read. If you accept that going in, your chances of getting someone to read your magnificent safety epic are that much greater.
For the love of all that is good, don’t make it an epic, though…
Be direct, be concise, and say what you mean. Here are a few common problems I see with the volumes of safety programs I have seen over the years:
Pages of exposition and explanation about who, why, what, when, where, and how
Safety Professionals are desperate to explain the justification behind what we write. I think maybe it’s a bit of overcompensation designed to prove to our people that we really care and we’re not just asking because OSHA said so. Those explanations are great, but here’s a newsflash. NO ONE reads them. Save the all important WHYs for training and face to face interactions. It will stick better that way anyway. No one wants to read BLS statistics (admit it, you don’t either) before they head to the job.
Confusing decision trees, charts, and pages upon pages of appendices
If your document reads like a choose your own adventure novel, your reader will most likely get eaten in the jungle by a rabid species of crocodile long thought to be extinct. Keep it simple.
Assuming “they get it”
The average worker does not think like a Safety Professional. That’s not a knock, it’s a fact based on roles. We are charged with identifying hazards, analyzing risk, and working to help provide solutions. Most positions in an organization are not that abstract. They’re task based. Align your writing style to that of the worker and you’ll get a lot more millage out of it.
There’s a lot more to talk about
But in the interest of keeping this post brief, I’m going to leave it to you for now. Look through your guidance documents and ask the questions yourself. Are they too long? Are the directions understandable?
Just remember, there’s always something to take out. If your safety manual is 150 pages or more, consider how many people actually know what’s in it. How much more effective would it be if it were 30? That may sound like a pipe dream, but it’s entirely possible.
If you struggle getting safety documents and guidance to stick, I’d be happy to help. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested in a consultation. As always I’ll continue this topic in the weeks to come. There’s a lot to unpack.
June 4, 2019
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