How Plain Language Improves Workplace Health and Safety

Introduction: This podcast is brought to you by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.

CCOHS is situated upon the traditional territories of the Erie, Neutral, Huron-Wendat, Haudenosaunee and Mississaugas. This land is covered by the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabek to share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes. We further acknowledge that this land is covered by the Between the Lakes Purchase, 1792, between the Crown and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation.

Elaine: Hello and welcome to Health and Safety to Go, a podcast broadcasting from the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety in Hamilton, Ontario.

When it comes to communicating workplace health and safety guidance, being clear is essential. Unclear messaging and instructions can put workers at risk of harm to themselves and to others. That's where plain language can help. Today, we are chatting with plain language writer and editor Jocelyn Pletz about how plain language can improve workplace health and safety. Jocelyn has a background in policy development, labour relations, and human resources. She uses her expertise to work with government, private sector, and nonprofit organizations on improving their communications.

Thank you for joining us today, Jocelyn.

Jocelyn Pletz: Thank you Elaine and thank you very much for the invitation and the opportunity to talk about plain language.

Before I start, I would like to acknowledge that I am in the traditional ancestral lands of the Mi’kmaq known as Mi'gma'gi, and as a treaty person I am committed to reconciliation. And I also acknowledge the history of communities of African descent throughout our region and the many African Nova Scotian communities.

Elaine: Great. Thank you for adding that. For listeners who are unfamiliar with plain language. What is it? And why is it important?

Jocelyn: You know plain language, it’s language or it’s material that is written and structured in a way so that it's clear so that your intended readers can identify, easily find what they need and understand what they find. Hopefully the first time. And then they can use that information appropriately,

In June of 2023, an ISO standard was published, and it has a definition of plain language as communication that puts the readers first. It considers what readers want and need to know. The readers level of Interest expertise and literacy skills and the context in which readers will use the document. And it's been many, many years in the making, to come to that standard definition and it really truly does emphasize that plain language writing and editing is all about structuring your information in a way where the audience, your primary audience, can find it, use it, and take the appropriate action.

Elaine: And what about health and safety at work? How can plain language help?

Jocelyn: Yeah! you know the plain language of the health and safety is similar to sort of any human resource or employment policy. By taking the time that you need to take to understand who your intended audience is, your writing will be clearer and easier for your audience to find and understand. And in a workplace safety environment it's so critical that that people can find what they need quickly and easily and understand what their role is and in anything and how to work safely. Really, and the way to do that is to write materials specifically for that audience so that they can find it and understand it.

Elaine: So, what would you say are some plain language do's and don'ts at work?

Jocelyn: I guess the do’s, you know, when you're, when you're writing, do involve plain language at the beginning of the process. To think about, you know, structuring or writing your document using plain language principles because if you know, if you leave it until the end which often happens, you know as a plain language practitioner, we would recommend that the structure change, that you present the information in a different order, or in a different way, and there's sometimes real resistance. And so that the end of the day you don't have a solid plain language document. So, you know in terms of the writing, do use familiar words do a pay attention to the design of the information, know your audience, really know your audience. And know what their needs are, what their literacy skills are, the key information that they need versus the information that's nice to have, but not critical for them to understand. And I guess from a don't oversimplify or dumb down your writing, you know, sometimes people think that if you know plain language is all about using short words and dumbing it down which it clearly is not. It's really writing clearly. It's writing in a way that your audience can find what they need and understand and act so, you know don't oversimplify. Don't dumb it down. Don't make it boring or dull, or unsophisticated. You want to respect your audience. You just you want to be really clear on who your audience is and right for that audience.

Elaine: Great. Did you want to add anything about like jargon or abbreviations?

Jocelyn: Oh, for sure. I mean don't use jargon and understand that jargon is not common. The definition of certain words that you use and, in your workplace, probably don't have a common definition across Canada. That I certainly learned that in moving between provinces. So, avoid jargon. Try, if you're using abbreviations or acronyms, which government is notorious for [using] many, many, acronyms, ensure that you've explained what those acronyms mean before you use them. And then just refresh that at various points through the document.
Other do’s when you know, when we talk about structure and design, if you've got a document that is going to be longer than four pages, we would recommend that you put a table of contents in there. That you use meaningful headings that you don't just use part one, or chapter one, or phase one. That you explain what each section is. That you use parallel structure so that the reader can start to predict when they move to a new section, what that new section would look like based on the heading and the heading structure.

Try to use lots of spacing. Again, coming down to your audience. If you've got a lot of information, sometimes it's easier to present that information in a table. Well, you can use a table, but try to help the reader move between rows by shading one row a lighter color than the next row or the next one down and just alternating that. So that visually it's easy for your reader to move through the document.

They, you know, when you have a question or when you've posed a question to someone or if someone has a question and they need an answer, always put the most important information at the top. Sometimes a document, you know your primary audience, and your secondary audience and then you have a significant audience, which is sometimes different than the primary, but they each have a different need when they're reading that document. If you have to use the same document then, you know, just the one document instead of creating a different document for each audience. You can do that, but your level of detail goes from answering what the primary audience needs to providing more detail as you go deeper into the document that may not be necessary for the primary audience to understand. And they may not in fact read that material.

So, again a lot of what you're doing in terms of the do's and don'ts in the workplace is by planning your plain language approach at the beginning. You can address the needs of each audience if it's the one document that has to serve many audiences.

Elaine: It also seems like plain language would go a long way in supporting equity, diversity, and inclusion at work. Is this a case?

Jocelyn: Yes, absolutely. You know by making your information accessible to people, you know, whether it's that based on a disability, whether it's based on literacy and reading, or you know, access to resources or access to information. By providing information in a way that you want, you understand your audience, you've taken into consideration their identities, their backgrounds, their culture. We consider when we're creating a persona; we look at ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, whatever would be specific to the material that you're writing. We want to make sure that we understand, and we have a really good clear understanding of the technology needs of our audience, of their computer literacy, of their access to information. You know, if you're writing material and you're relying on having it be online, but a large part of your audience lives in an area where they have dial-up access or no access to internet, then you need to be aware of that, plan for that, and have a different way of sharing the information.

So, by creating the persona, you dig really deeply to understand that. So, if you're trying to reach a diverse audience or ensure equity and diversity considerations and inclusion, you would create personas that have specific needs to those specific audiences to ensure that your writing is thorough. That you really do address the needs of that audience. By doing that you're ensuring information and resources are shared and people have access.

Another approach with the plain language with the design is we really design and there are accessibility standards, and we design to ensure that assistive technology can work with the way that the plain language document has been structured.

Elaine: Well, you've touched on many benefits of plain language. So how can employers start making changes in their workplace?

Jocelyn: Yeah. There's sometimes a little bit of resistance to doing it, simply because it takes a little bit more time. Businesses that want to implement plain language, what I would really encourage is that it involves strong leadership and a really realistic sense of the time and the recognition of the time that it will take to do plain language writing in their workplace. You know, to do the project. For example, if you were doing a complete overhaul of your policies, you would want to ensure that the leadership at the top is absolutely on board and is supportive of the approach and will sustain that support for the duration of the project.
Because it would involve various groups, they would have to have their support as well and they would really have to show the leadership to ensure that each level within that organization understood the intent of the project and were on board with it.

You’d want an accurate time frame, you know, where if you're doing a complete overhaul, chances are that's not a six-month project, that's an 18-month project. And you would want to ensure that you have the resources available, the training for the staff available, and a really clear understanding of what it is that you were trying to do. You’d want to make sure that you had focus groups, that you did include the sort of key elements of the plain language approach. So, you know focus groups, testing, a reiteration. So, it's a very iterative process where you know, you create something, you give it to the client, you ask them, have we changed the meaning of the document? Are we still saying what you wanted to say? And then they give it back with feedback. Then we go back again and back and forth.

So, there's a little bit more back and forth and editing versus sometimes, you know, the policy is written and then it's distributed, and they haven't necessarily been really clear on what that policy is trying to do.

The other thing with plain languages. We really try to, by using active voice, we really try to build an accountability into a document. So, you clarify who's responsible for what? Who is the final authority? Who has a part to play in each aspect of that policy? So that people reading the policy can understand what's required of them and that sometimes is a bit of a different approach for employers.

So again, it comes down to the leadership being willing to build that accountability into their material. And it takes time.

Elaine: Yeah. Is there anything else you'd like to add about plain language and its impact at work?

Jocelyn: You know, I guess what I would say is that it really it truly does improve employee relations and it improves client relations. It saves time you sometimes when new material is put out new procedures and new policies or new information the way that it's presented is unclear. And so, employees are asking for more training. They're asking for retraining. Clients are calling to ask for an explanation because of the can't understand what it is that you put out there and they to comply, but they just don't know how.

And by applying plain language and the focus group and the audience and really understanding who you're writing for and what their needs are, you take all of that away. So, at the end of the exercise, you know, you have reduced time loss, you have increased compliance, you've reduced costs. You've improved training, employees tend to respond better, clients certainly respond better, when they can understand what they're looking for really quickly. And so, I guess what I would say is it's worth, and I'm really biased, but it is worth taking the time to do it. Applying the principles, applying plain language writing, really understanding who you're writing for and what it is that they need. Because it will save time and money and increase compliance in the long run.

Elaine: Those are all excellent points.

Jocelyn, thank you again for taking the time to join us on the podcast and for sharing your expertise with our listeners. We know all workers have the right to know how to perform their job safely whether their new, young, international, experienced, or have a disability. When employers commit to using plain language, they make it easier for workers to understand health and safety procedures and to make informed decisions. They're also helping to support an inclusive workplace. Plain language is for everyone. Thanks for listening.

Jocelyn: Thanks.