October 1999 // Volume 37 // Number 5 // Feature Articles // 5FEA1

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Effective Use of Risk Communication Strategies for Health & Safety Educational Materials

Risk communication strategies can help increase the effectiveness with which educators, specialist communicate with audiences about human health and safety. This publication outlines specific techniques and strategies to motivate people to take action, calm people down when they are enraged, and to communicate information that may be difficult to understand. Many programming areas, agriculture and natural resources, community development, consumer and family sciences, and 4-H and youth each deal with risk-related subject areas. The application of strategies like those outlined in this publication can help to increase the effectiveness with which health and safety programs are developed and delivered.

Scott Hutcheson
Leadership and Community Development Specialist
Purdue University
West Lafayette, Indiana
Internet address: shutch@purdue.edu


Educators, scientists, and researchers face specific challenges as they communicate technical information to educate the general public and other non-technical audiences. In some cases, they are writing and speaking to these audiences about health and safety concerns. Whether the objective is to motivate people to take action, calm people down when they are enraged, or to educate and inform, there are specific techniques and strategies to effectively communicate and educate regarding issues of health and safety.

Sometimes the educational objective is to deliver technical information that will motivate people to take action: instructing workers about how to properly use equipment and chemicals, teaching low-income families about good nutrition, explaining the importance of water quality. In other instances, educators may be telling people that a perceived hazard is not as serious as they may think. Food irradiation, pesticide application, and other issues can inflame the general public when the actual risk is very low. Another educational objective may be to inform people so that they will be prepared in the event of an emergency.

For each of these situations there are specific strategies to overcome the potential communicative and educational barriers that are presented. There are also general techniques and approaches that can be used to increase the effectiveness with which technical and complex information can be explained to non-technical audiences.

Risk Communication Strategies

There are certain obstacles inherent in developing materials to inform and educate the public about potential health and safety risks. Some obstacles are specific to a particular topic. There also are some general principles and guidelines that apply to a broad range of health and safety topics. Perhaps the most basic goal in educating and communicating health and safety information is to promote greater knowledge and understanding by all parties involved of the particular risks, the possible solutions, and the accompanying issues and concerns (Oleckno, 1995).

Recognize the Public's Attitude About the Potential Risk

There are many ways in which the communication of health and safety information can be improved. Several models have been developed that are helpful in specific situations. One way of thinking about risk is to consider the relationship between the potential hazard and the level of public outrage. Much of Sandman's (1993) work is anchored in the formula:


Public acceptability of certain risks depend largely on the degree of their outrage (Sandman, 1987). When public outrage about a perceived risk, such as the use of certain pesticides, is very high and the actual risk, according to experts, is low, the effectiveness of education efforts may be limited because of the defensive posture held by both parties. In this situation, educators and scientists must acknowledge the public outrage as a component of the risk equation. Simply acknowledging the outrage may not eliminate the concern, but failure to validate the values and feelings of the public can lead to mistrust and alienation.

Although Sandman's model is simple, it is useful in gaining understanding about why some traditional methods of educating and communicating about risks can fail. The following is a list of some of the common factors from the literature (Sandman, 1987).

Outrage Factors

Catastrophic Outcomes
Dreaded Outcomes
Fatal Outcomes
Invisible Risks
Involuntary Risks
Memorable Outcomes
Untrustworthy Sources
Risks Focused on Time and Space
Uncertain Risks
Uncontrollable Risks
Undetectable Risks
Unethical Risks
Unfair Risks
Unfamiliar Risks
Unnatural Risks

Think back to the Alar controversy of several years ago, which had a significant impact on apple producers and processors (Sandman, 1993). In hindsight it is understandable why so much public outrage erupted over a relatively small health hazard. The growth-regulating hormone Alar was perceived by the public as an involuntary, unfamiliar, unnatural and invisible risk with a potentially dreaded outcome, and its risk was downplayed by an untrustworthy source (Oleckno, 1995).

For the experts, attention to the public's perceptions should play an important role in the way in which publications are drafted. Figure 1 illustrates the possible views about several risks. The items in the lower left and upper right portions of the contingency table represent opposing views about the seriousness of the risks. Education about health and safety sometimes involves allaying public concerns on some issues (for example, food irradiation) and motivating action on other issues (such as, manual dishwashing). The way in which this is done has significant implications for the effectiveness of educational materials.

Figure 1
Public Perceptions of Potential Risks (Adapted from Groth, 1991)
High Hazard
Childhood Lead Poisoning
Protecting Your Hearing
Nuclear Waste Disposal
Low Hazard
Food Irradiation
Groundwater Nitrates
High Outrage
Drunk Driving
Low Outrage
Manual Dishwashing
Water Chlorination
Protecting Your Hearing
Groundwater Nitrates

Establish the Existence and the Severity of the Risk

Once public outrage is considered, the next step in creating effective health and safety educational materials is to establish the existence and severity of potential risks. In some cases, more effort is needed to establish the existence of a risk than in other situations. This may be the case when outrage is low or non-existent. For instance, when developing materials about manual dishwashing there is more of a challenge to establish the existence of a potential risk than in developing materials about safety with farm tractors or chain saw safety. There is probably little or no outrage regarding the dangers of improper dish washing. On the other hand, there may not be true outrage related to equipment safety, yet the public is more likely to readily acknowledge the associated risks.

There are many reasons why "washing dishes" might be perceived as less of a risk situation than operating a chain saw. The less dramatic and more mundane act of washing dishes seems to be an unlikely threat to health. For this reason, more attention is needed to explain the existence of the potential risk. The following three steps outlined by Clark (1984) can help establish the existence of a potential risk:

  1. Plausibility - provide an indication that the existence of a potential risk is plausible.
  2. Sign Reasoning - note the signs of its existence.
  3. Explanation - offer one or more explanations for the existence of the hazard.

The above three steps might be an effective strategy to help people understand how improper dishwashing can lead to bacteria which can harm people. These steps would not necessarily be appropriate for the chain saw example. In the latter example, it may be more helpful to demonstrate the severity of the problem and how the risk can affect people. Clark (1984) provides the following advice when this is the desired goal:

1. Overview of the Problem
Single statistics, number of people affected, comparisons, etc.

2. Indicate Multiple Implications
Undesirable consequences

3. Demonstrate that this problem is more serious than other problems
Compare to other hazards already thought of with great concern.

4. Suggest that the effects of the problem are enduring
Unreversiblity, cumulative effect.

Demonstrate that the Risk Poses a Potential Threat
to Abilities and Values

Another way to communicate the impact of the problem is to demonstrate that the potential risk can threaten basic human abilities and values. In an educational publication about wearing protective headgear, a presentation of the technical information about hearing loss can be enhanced by also communicating some of the central values we associate with the ability to hear: enjoyment of music, hearing the laughter of children. These examples may seem melodramatic but this kind of association can help motivate people to pay closer attention to the information.

Illustrate Specific Steps to Avoid the Risk

Gaining agreement that a problem exists can be accomplished with the help of the principles described above to (a) establish the existence and the severity of the risk and (b) demonstrate that the risk poses a threat to values and abilities. Agreement on the problem or potential risk, however, is only part of the goal. There are also potential obstacles and strategies to consider when describing specific steps for action. The following obstacles and strategies are recommended by Rowan (1991):

Obstacle: Belief that all action is hopeless.
Strategy: Acknowledge situation's difficulty; describe specific options still available.

Obstacle: Lack of clarity about what action to take.
Strategy: Describe specific steps or behaviors to enact not general goals.

Obstacle: Action seems too difficult, expensive, time-consuming.
Strategy: Make the first step easy, not time consuming, not expensive.

Obstacle: Doubt that one person's efforts will make a difference.
Strategy: Describe a similar situation in which small or individual acts resulted in great success.

Use Quasi-Scientific Explanations

Quasi-scientific explanations help the learner envision important points and critical connections in complex phenomena. Graphic aids, textual highlighting, and figurative language are ways to construct quasi-scientific explanations (Rowan, 1998). Many Extension materials use graphic illustrations very effectively. For instance, a publication on machine hazards may explain the difference between a "no energy spring" and a "stored energy spring" with a graphic illustration. These kinds of pictures might make it very apparent why a stored energy spring is much more dangerous.

Materials on nitrate and groundwater may only textually establish connections and relationships in the explanation of nitrate and groundwater. For instance, one way in which nitrate gets into groundwater is by "leaching." Groundwater vulnerability is explained as being dependent on a number of characteristics including depth of water table, texture of soil, bedrock characteristics, glacial till, and so on. For the non-technical audience untrained in geology, a few graphic illustrations could help to explain some of the connections between these geological factors and nitrate in groundwater.

Using Elucidating Explanations

Elucidating explanations help people understand the meanings and uses of terms. Effective elucidating explanations contain (a) a typical instance of the concept, a definition that lists the concept's essential features, (c) an array of varied examples and non-examples (these non-examples are instances likely taken as examples), and (d) opportunities to practice distinguishing examples from non-examples (Merrill & Tennyson, 1977; Tennyson & Cocchiarella, 1986).

Materials on nutrition and aging may provide important and easy to understand information about how nutritional needs change as we age. One of the topics likely addressed would be fiber. High-fiber foods such as fruits, dried peas and beans, vegetables, and whole grains are explained as helpful in aiding food to move through the digestive tract, as muscles become weaker with age. Lawrence Prouix (1996. pD2) a Washington Post writer provides a good example of an elucidating explanation of what counts as fiber. He writes:

Much fiber is chemically similar to starch, but its atoms are so arranged that our stomach enzymes cannot break it down. It comes in two types, insoluble and soluble, and plant foods are the source of both. Insolubles, such as cellulose, fit the popular sawdust-like image of fiber (think of wheat bran). They absorb water and add bulk to the stool but pass out of the body unchanged..Soluble fibers are softer things, including gums and pectin; apples and oats are good sources....."

Rowan (1998) points out that although Prouix's explanation is a good example of an elucidating explanation, further examples and some non-examples could enhance it.

Use Transformative Explanations

Transformative explanations help people understand ideas that are difficult to comprehend because they are counter-intuitive. There are four steps in a transformative explanation: (a) statement of the lay theory, (b) acknowledgement of the lay theory's apparent merit, (c) creating dissatisfaction with the lay theory, and (d) showing how a more orthodox notion better explains the phenomenon. Counter-intuitive concepts can be expressed with simple words and can be easily envisioned, yet still difficult to understand. Transformative explanations can be effective in these situations (Rowan, 1998).

Typical materials on bacterial contamination of household water might begin with the statement like, "How do you know your water is safe to drink? Appearances can be deceiving." This would be a good opportunity for a transformative explanation. The following example is how the four steps of creating a transformative explanation can be applied to this particular topic:

State the lay theory.
Given the choice, most people would rather drink a glass of crystal clear ice water instead of a cup of room temperature murky water.

Acknowledge the lay theory's apparent merit.
That certainly makes sense. The bottled water industry would probably never have gotten of the ground if its product did not look clean, clear, and refreshing.

Create dissatisfaction with the lay theory.
Looks can be deceiving. Take those same two glasses of water. What if the murky one was really tea and the clear one was a colorless odorless chemical that was deadly if ingested? Things are not always as they seem.

Show how a more orthodox notion better explains the phenomenon.
Next, information could be given about how to test water for bacterial contamination.

Transformative explanations are effective because they can surprise people into re-thinking some notions that were previously unquestioned (Rowan, 1998).


Information and education on health and safety related topics are a significant component of Extension activities. Many programming areas, Agriculture and Natural Resources, Leadership and Community Development, Consumer & Family Sciences, and 4-H & Youth each deal with risk-related subject areas. The application of strategies like those outlined here can help to increase the effectiveness with which Extension delivers education and information from a variety of subject areas to the general public.


Clark, R. A. (1984). Persuasive messages. NY: Harper & Row.

Groth, E. III (1991). Communicating with consumers about food safety and risk issues. Food Technology, 24, 248-253.

Merrill, M. D., & Tennyson, R. D. (1977). Teaching concepts: An instructional design guide. Englewood Cliffs: NJ: Educational Technology Publication.

Oleckno, W. W. (1995). Guidelines for improving risk communication in environmental health. Journal of Environmental Health, 58(1) 20-23.

Prouix, L. G. (1996, March 21). It's no punch line: Fiber's good for you. The [Lafayette, Indiana] Journal and Courier, p. D2.

Rowan, K. E. (1998). Effective explanation of uncertain and complex science. [Chapter in preparation for] S. Dunwoody, S.M. Friedman, & C.L. Rogers (Eds). Uncertainty, science, and the media. Mahweh, NJ: Erlbaum.

Rowan, K. E. (1991). Goals, obstacles, and strategies in risk communication: A problem solving approach to improving communication about risks. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 19, 300-329.

Sandman, P. M. (1987). Risk communication: Facing public outrage. EPA Journal, 13, 21-22.

Sandman, P. M. (1993). Responding to community outrage: Strategies for effective risk communication. Fairfax, VA: American Industrial Hygiene Association.

Tennyson, R. D. & Cocciarella, M. J. (1986). An empirically based instructional design theory for teaching concepts. Review of Educational Psychology, 56, 40-71.