Apr 12 2012

Ten Tips to Write Better Safety Paperwork

Safety DocumentsOther than a safety policy (which is essentially a PR document), the documents that make up a safety management system are intended to clearly communicate what people are supposed to do in certain situations to avoid being hurt. Many of these documents though are as clear as mud and about as engaging as watching grass die. They’re full of jargon and gobledegook, long winded and confusing in fact the exact opposite of what they’ need to be. However, if you write safety documents you can make them better and here are ten tips for doing just that:


  1. The most important thing to remember when writing a safety document (or anything else for that matter) is your target audience. Write in a way that your target audience can understand. In the main this would be the workforce and possibly some supervisors and managers.
  2. Use simple words, well understood by your target audience. Long, unusual or complicated looking words may look impressive to your boss but may confuse the hell out of the people that you want to read and implement the safety procedure;
  3. Don’t use jargon unless you can explain it – the same goes for abbreviations (you may know what a SWMS is but does your target audience? – it stands for safe work method statement if you’re interested and didn’t know);
  4. Use common terms rather than technically correct ones to explain things. I’ll bet that more people know what caustic soda is than know that its correct chemical name is sodium hydroxide – guess which one you should use;
  5. Use a word processor with spell checking and grammar checking functions (there’s plenty of free ones around – just search the internet) and use them. But make sure that they use your language or variation of it (US English uses different rules of grammar and different spellings than does English, English if you know what I mean). Better still, learn how to spell correctly, learn about punctuation, learn about grammar. There are plenty of free courses available on the internet and plenty of books available so there’s no excuse for not knowing how to write properly.
  6. Use short sentences and divide your writing into short paragraphs. A long, solid block of text with no breaks intimidates even the most avid reader. Again, there’s plenty of instruction around to help you with this and you may even be able to convince your boss to send you on a training course.
  7. If you need to have your safety document translated into another language don’t use an online translating application – they are terrible or so I’ve been told by people for whom I’ve used these services. If you do need to have your work translated then it’s probably because you have a lot of non-English reading/speaking workers (remember that just because someone can understand and speak good English doesn’t mean that they can also read it). The best solution I’ve found is to get the best English speaker(s) in the target group and work with them to translate your stuff into a form that they understand (encouraging this level of involvement also produces other benefits as you can imagine). If you decide to use a professional translating service make sure that they will provide a common language translation not an academic translation and get the translation checked out by your non-English reading workforce before finalising it.
  8. I think it was Einstein who said that explanations should be as brief as possible but no briefer and the same thing applies to safety procedures – state your point, move on and don’t waffle.
  9. Explain what you want people to do specifically. Don’t tell them to do something in accordance with some  technical standard or regulation – do you honestly think that someone is going to source the standard and then trawl through it to find out what they’re expected to do (that’s if they can understand it in the first place)? No way, they’re just going to ignore it.
  10. Lastly, before releasing your document into the world get it checked by someone who knows nothing about what you’re writing about (try your partner or your kids – they’ll probably be more likely to give you honest feedback as well). If they don’t understand it there’s a good chance your target audience isn’t going to either and it’s back to the drawing board, as they say.

So there you have it, 10 tips that will improve the safety documents you write. You can get more advice off the internet and there’s a stack of books about business and technical writing readily available at your local bookstore. If you have your own tips and hints please feel free to write the up in the comments sections below.

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