How to Write Effective HSE Documents?

HSE documents can help ensure everyone comes home from work healthy and safe. Use these guidelines to write HSE documents effectively for your workplace.

What is an Effective HSE Document?

HSE documents include policies, procedures, checklists, forms, posters, signs, training materials, and other written resources. These documents help everybody to understand how your workplace should run. In addition, they explain who is accountable for what, when, and why, as well as how to prevent accidents and exposure to health, safety, and environmental hazards.

Effective HSE documents are those that everyone at your workplace can read and understand. Also, they are written using words that make sense to your workers and are easy to use. The information in effective HSE documents explains how to work safely and what to do if something goes wrong. They are written to encourage workers to use safe practices and show that health, safety, and the environment are essential. Also, they are for continuously improving your workplace HSE.

To understand how to write them effectively, first take a look at common types of HSE documents:

Note: HSE Professionals are also involved in writing minutes of HSE meetings. Check this free online course on "Effective Minute Writing" if you wish to learn the skill of writing clear, concise, and accurate minutes of a meeting.

Now that you have a pretty good idea of HSE documents, it’s time to learn how to create one for your workplace. Here is the explanation of the Effective HSE documents writing process, so you can get started on the right foot: 

Define the Purpose of the Document

Every HSE document needs a clear purpose. Ask yourself what the document is for. Most HSE documents will be information documents, instruction documents, or a form.

HSE documents will tell you about something and what to do about it. For example, Standard Operating Procedures will tell you about the HSE hazards and risks when operating a piece of equipment and what to do to manage those hazards and risks.

Always consider the following things when you are defining the purpose of the HSE document:

  • How will you share the document with your workers?
  • Where will the document be used?
  • What is the best way to get your message across?
  • What sort of document would work best in your workplace?

Before you create a document, you should be clear about what it will cover. Ask yourself the following questions: 

  • What activities and tasks need to be included?
  • What are the risks and hazards involved?
  • What is the best way to let people know?
  • What do workers need to know?
  • What do workers need to do?

      There can be countless other purposes of HSE documents like monitoring progress, changes, adherence to agreed ways of working, and compliance. Therefore, determining the exact purpose of the document is very important.

      Think About the Audience

      Think about the workers who will read your document – write the document for them. Some people at your workplace will find reading easy, while others may not. Workers may have trouble reading and understanding a document that uses words they do not know. 

      Consider your workers’ needs and abilities:

      • What do they already know about this topic?
      • How often and when will they use the document?
      • Is English their first language?
      • How well can they read?
      • Can they read numbers?
      • What everyday words can you use?
      • What other formats can you use for workers who have difficulty reading regular print? 
      • Are there other ways to get your message across? 

      For an HSE document to be effective, always consider including the following elements:

      • Flow charts to explain instructions, procedures, processes, and HSE goals.
      • Diagrams, illustrations, and line drawings to explain technology and procedures.
      • Photographs to show equipment and worksites.
      • Tables, charts, and graphs to explain statistics, HSE data, and figures.
      • Maps to explain emergency procedures, locations, and area layouts.

      Encourage workers to share ideas about what should be included or updated in HSE documents. Seek their views when you are identifying, assessing, and deciding how to deal with work risks. Involve people with a range of technical and operational knowledge and experience. Work together to find solutions – workers’ suggestions can lead to better and safer ways of working.

      Write in Plain English

      Write the document in ‘plain English’ to make it easy for workers to understand. Keep sentences short and precise, as long and complex sentences are hard to read. A sentence should contain only one or two ideas.

      Use everyday words to make your documents easy to understand. Workers may not know common HSE terms, especially if English is not their first language. If you need to introduce a new industry term, or if there is no simple alternative word, explain the concept first in plain English. Then give the new term.

      Avoid unnecessary acronyms and abbreviations. An acronym is a word formed from the initials of words in a phrase or title. For example, PPE stands for personal protective equipment. An abbreviation is a shortened form of a word or phrase. For example, ‘mg’ means milligram. If you use an acronym or abbreviation, explain it the first time you use it in the document. Try not to use an acronym or abbreviation unless you know your workers already use and understand it.

      Try to use active rather than passive voice. Active voice is more personal and direct and says who must do something. For example, Workers must wear protective gloves. The passive voice sounds more formal and uses more words. People often use passive voice to write about something to be done by someone. For example, Protective gloves are to be worn by workers.

      Use the words one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, and ten for numbers up to ten. For numbers over ten, use figures (11, 12, and 13 …) 

      But where can you get information to put into your documents? There are many places where you can get the information. For example, you can read existing HSE documents, talk to workers about the messages you want to get across, talk to other HSE professionals, and read industry-specific guidance, standards, and other documents. In HSE documents, only refer to specific resources and publications if they are available and accessible to workers.

      Plan the Layout of the Document 

      Once you have all the information, try giving it a proper structure. Plan the layout of the HSE document. Most documents should have an introduction explaining their purpose, mentioning the responsibilities, scope, key messages, and main instructions. 

      Here are some questions to think about:

      • How long will the document be? The shorter, the better.
      • How will you use headings and subheadings to organize the information?
      • How will the information be displayed?
      • Will you need photographs, images, or diagrams to explain key points?

      Your HSE document will be easier to read if it has headings and subheadings to break up large chunks of information. That will help the reader to find information more easily. Write important headings in a large font rather than underlining. Capital letters are okay for headings but try not to use them in other places as they can LOOK LIKE SHOUTING. 

      Use the same font throughout the HSE document. A plain, easy-to-read font such as Arial, Calibri, or Verdana would be a good choice for HSE documents. Use bold and italics only to highlight information. Your HSE document will be harder to read if it has colored text because it is harder to read than black and white. Also, colored text may not appear well if the document is printed or photocopied in black and white.

      Use left-hand justification (text aligned to the left margin) and the same layout throughout the document. Short paragraphs with one main message will be easier to understand. Do not forget to include plenty of white space between the paragraphs and in the whole document. Use photos or illustrations that are relevant and easy to understand.

      Get the Document Reviewed by the Workers

      When you have written the first draft, ask for feedback. Invite workers to look at the HSE document. Ask them to tell you how the draft can be improved.

      Here are questions you might ask about the document:

      • Does it have the information you need?
      • Can you understand the document? If not, which parts are hard to understand and why?
      • Is the document useful? If not, why?
      • What are the main points in this document, and what have you learned after reading the document?
      • Is the information in a logical order? If not, how could it be improved?
      • Does the document make you want to read it?
      Use the feedback to write another draft. Once you are finished writing the second draft, tell workers how and where you have used the feedback they gave you. You may need to explain why some information has been included, and other information has not. If you have added new information, explain why. For example, you might have received more up-to-date information from manufacturers and suppliers.

      Decide on the final layout, design, and graphics. Then ask someone who has not seen the document to look for spelling mistakes and other errors. Make changes based on the feedback that you get. Always follow your workplace’s processes for quality assurance, document checking, version control, and document approval. 

      Once you are finished writing, you need to know whether the document is understood and achieving its purpose. Work out how you will know and record whether the new document is effective. For example, you could write down whether supervisors and managers have seen all workers using the new procedure correctly and whether the document enables the workers to manage risks in the workplace. Look over the document with workers as part of your annual health and safety policy reviews.

      Try Translating the Document into the Local Language

      Translating HSE documents into other languages is not always easy. Some languages do not have technical words or terms that match the words used in the workplace. Don’t assume that a worker who speaks a language other than English can read in that language. Consider sharing information using photos and other images explaining the key messages.

      If you decide to get a document translated, use a qualified translator. Although another worker may speak the same language, this does not mean they are able to translate important HSE documents.

      Languages can vary from region to region. This means that words with the same meaning may be spelled and pronounced differently. Before a translator works with your document, check which dialects (regional variations) your workers speak and read.

      Final Words

      Even if writing isn't your favorite thing to do, you don't have to be afraid of a blank page if you plan well and have the right information. So, when you're ready to start your next HSE document, just follow the guidelines in this article to write it effectively and efficiently. If you need any help with your technical writing skills, check out this free online course on Technical Writing Essentials.

      HSE Windsock

      We are committed to guiding everyone in the right direction toward free information & resources related to Occupational Health, Safety and Environment.

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