[Tech Talk] Communicating Risk

Risk communication is the science of communicating effectively in situations that are highly sensitive or controversial.

So, what is risk? Risk communication is the science of communicating effectively in situations that are highly sensitive or controversial. Risk communication principles serve to create an appropriate level of outrage in direct proportion to the level of risk or hazard. It is an interactive process of sharing knowledge and understanding, so as to arrive at well-informed risk management decisions.

The goal is a better understanding by experts and non-experts alike of the actual and perceived risks, the possible solutions, and the related issues and concerns. The cardinal rule of risk communication is the same as that for emergency medicine: first, do no harm. A threatening or actual crisis often poses a volatile equation of public action and reaction. (Reprinted with permission from www.communicatingrisk.org.)

How Does It Apply To Us?

Pest management professionals need to train employees, especially new hires, on how to properly communicate risks associated with chemicals and, yes, pesticides are chemicals. An informative, hands-on training program will not only help the employee effectively communicate risks, but also will be effective in showing your employees the risk they have when working with pest control materials on a day-to-day basis.

For example, an employee wearing a respirator while applying a dust material may alarm a customer, making them wonder what kind of dangerous material is being used that requires a gas mask? How your employees respond is critical to the positive — or negative — outcome of the situation. As PMPs, we hope the response is not something like, “Oh, don’t worry, I work in this stuff all day and it hasn’t hurt me yet!”

Risk Communication Scenario.

How about the customer who just asks, “Is that chemical you are using safe?” How would your employees, even your office staff, answer that question? At your next company training session, have that question written out on a piece of paper, hand it out, and have each person provide a written answer. Then, swap papers to avoid any embarrassment, and get a discussion going. You may be surprised at the answers.

As you know, we are not allowed to advertise pesticides as being “safe,” and must instead use the phrase “safety features include...” The real answer and guidance you should give your employees when asked, “Is that chemical safe?,” is to NOT ANSWER that question!

What? Why? That doesn’t seem very customer friendly.

Let me explain: When confronted with this query, many PMPs start a long elaborate explanation on the “safety” of pesticides. Sometimes they will talk about the term LD50 and studies involving laboratory animals, eye testing in animals, etc. Suddenly, instead of resolving their concern, you’ve given them a long list of additional considerations, further complicating the issue and not really answering their primary question.

PMPs need to establish the real issue when asked if a chemical is safe. First, acknowledge their question by saying something like, “I share your concern regarding the safety of this product.” Then, clarify their concern with follow up questions such as, “What specifically, are you concerned about?” You may get an answer like, “Oh, my grandchildren are visiting next week and I just want to make sure that what you do today won’t harm them.”

Well, that’s easy enough to handle. You can provide assurances that the product you have used during the service will not adversely affect children playing in the vicinity. You haven’t given a lot of detail, but you’ve allayed their immediate fear. Now, if you had launched into a long explanation on LD50, LC50, dermal, skin, inhalation and other issues, you may have completely freaked them out and further inflated what was really a pretty simple concern.

It's All In The Approach.

We need to teach our employees how to communicate risk by going slow, speaking with authority and proceeding cautiously, allowing the person asking the questions to talk and explain their feelings. We should listen twice as much as we talk and never try to impress a customer with too much information.

We also need to know at what point to refer questions to someone else in the company. And, even more importantly, when to simply walk away from a confrontational customer situation.

Many years ago, I received a call from the field asking if a termite treatment could be performed on a customer’s home where one occupant was bed ridden in an oxygen tent and could not be moved out of the room due to ill health. This situation boiled down to an internal issue of sales vs. service, but had I not been alerted of the situation and the home treated as planned, the outcome could have been disastrous. The field staff involved wisely chose to obtain additional opinions before making a decision. Effective risk communication entails establishing and communicating a set of guidelines for employees so they know when to stop and get the right person in the organization involved in the situation.

Tips to Get Started.

Here are some things to think about when discussing risk communications.

Phrases to avoid. “Don’t worry.” “I use this stuff all the time and it doesn’t hurt me.” “You can drink this and it won’t hurt you.” “It’s safe or I wouldn’t be allowed to use it.” “The EPA and FDA have approved its use.” (Hint: FDA and EPA do not approve pesticides, they register them for use under strict environmental guidelines to include risk factors to humans, our food supply and our pets.)

Phrases to use. The first and most important phrase is: “I share your concern regarding the safety of this product. What specifically are you concerned about?” Practice this phrase with your employees until they can say it naturally and unrehearsed, and you’ll be well on your way to effectively dealing with risk communication.


Kolbe is the director of technical and training services for Viking Pest Control in Bridgewater, N.J. Kolbe’s career in pest management started in June 1974 after he graduated from the University of Delaware.

Copesan is an alliance of pest management companies with locations throughout North America. To learn more, visit www.copesan.com.

December 2013
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