Communicating risks | Work of Arts
Communicating risks | Work of Arts

Communicating risks

Writing Studies professor Tom Barker teaches his students how to analyze risks in their environments and how to make those environments safer.

In addition to gaining writing credit and enhanced writing skills, the students in Tom Barker’s Writing Studies – Risk Communications class emerged with another practical ability: they learned how to make their work, education and personal environments safer.

“Risk Communication is the study of how information can make people safe,” explains Barker, a professor cross-appointed in the Faculty of Arts Writing Studies Program and the Faculty of Extension. Risk Communication uses brochures, flyers, posters, training materials and other related documents to help people become aware of hazards in their environment and provides them with information to avoid or minimize those risks.

Barker’s class, which incorporated a Community Service-Learning (CSL) component, paired students with organizations such as SAGE, Winifred Stewart, Scouts Canada, Youth Empowerment and Support Services, and the Edmonton Seniors Centre. Students helped the organizations develop effective safety materials and risk communication strategies for groups such as seniors, at-risk youth and adults with developmental disabilities. For example, they worked closely with Scouts Canada to develop effective safety materials for their archery course.

IMG_1415_clarity Photo: (L to R) Isaac Sahibollah, Meagan Orchin, Tom Barker, Kristin Havinga and Shawn Anderson

The students also worked on a large, on-going project with the City of Edmonton Office of Transportation and Safety to analyze its safe road brochures. The students analyzed the usability and readability of the document to determine whether the content encouraged people to avoid the risk of speeding. That project has evolved into a larger project with the Office of Transportation and Safety, and Barker hopes that similar relationships will develop with other municipal agencies and industry to design and produce more effective more risk materials.

Barker teaches his students how to apply principles of good communication to documents to make them effective tools for mitigating risk. One important principle of good communication is knowing your audience. “There’s no one size fits all,” says Barker, but tailoring the message for the appropriate audience is important when designing and producing safety materials. For example, “if you know that your reader doesn’t speak English, then you could simplify the language. If they know a little English, then you could simplify your syntax and use culturally appropriate communications to reach that audience,” explains Barker.

Other principles of good communication include good research and being able to present information in a convincing and persuasive way.  “You have to understand the principles of text, fonts, size, lines, colour and graphics…. You have to understand how to appeal to a reader in order to convince them not to do bad behavior; you have to be persuasive,” explains Barker.

Barker teaches his students how to apply principles of good communication to documents to make them effective tools for mitigating risk.

He emphasizes that risks are present in every environment, and while Risk Communication can’t eliminate all risk, it can help us make decisions by showing us what our alternatives are.

Since arriving at the U of A in 2012, Barker has offered the class twice and considers his students some of the best and most engaged he’s seen during his 30-year career. Barker notes that the collaboration work with community partners was especially rewarding.

His students agree: “One benefit was [organizations] looking to you as a source of knowledge. Usually as students, we’re the ones learning. We’re not experts; we’re not usually sources of the information. It was an interesting dynamic and it’s a great transition as we graduate,” says student Meagan Orchin.

It’s clear that Barker is passionate about Risk Communication and the importance of using information as a solution in the workplace. “I want [my students] to understand the process of developing materials so that…writing and communication are not arbitrary, that they understand the importance of audience analysis, research, and document design to inform or persuade or teach a person. That deeper understanding of the importance of communication is important,” says Barker.

He adds that the ability to analyze a risk situation and respond to it opens up a number of doors to unexpected careers for his students — for example, students could potentially pursue careers as risk management consultants, occupational and health safety managers, and certified risk and safety professionals.

“They bring value to the workplace because they know how to analyze documents and work backwards from the document to see who the reader is; what the information is in the document; and whether the document has been designed to really do the job that it was designed to do,” says Barker.

Students interested in taking WRS – Risk Communications can view the Course Overview online. The class will be offered again in Fall 2014.


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  • disqus_s18WFM2FBN

    Have you ever considered putting your lectures online for distance learning….course sounds very interesting.

  • I haven’t put much of the course online, but that’s a thought. It would be great to reach a larger audience of students. Thanks for the comment. Tom