Roofing and Risk Communications

I’m getting a new roof installed today. It’s not easy writing to the bang, bang, bang of the roofers’ hammers and shovels, but write I must. My roofing woes started about a year and a half ago when the shingles on the southern slopes started to curl and buckle. The south end always gets hit the worst, I learned. I’ve learned lots of other things about roofs lately; namely, that the shingles used in the previous roof installation were not up to the job.

About five years ago, I chanced across a notice by a local law firm about a class action suit against a particular shingle maker, alleging that these shingles didn’t live up to their guarantee and started to wear after only a few years. Turned out those were the same shingles on my roof. Though they weren’t giving me any trouble at the time, I decided to contact the law firm for more information in case they did later on. Everything seemed fine until the spring of last year. There they were – those curled, crumbling fragments of asphalt, ready to slide off or blow into the eves troughs any moment. So I joined the class action suit. I had hoped to postpone replacing the roof until a settlement with the shingle manufacturer had been reached, but there’s no way when your roof looks like this.


As I step out the door to check on progress, I watch for flying roof debris. One of the roofers comes into the house to wash some dust out of his eye. He asks me what I do. “I’m a writer,” I reply. “Really?” he asks. “You mean like books and stuff?” “No,” I respond. “I write proposals, reports, articles and blogs. And I’m also a research consultant.” I explain what that means. “I do lots of telephone research interviews with different folks to understand how they make decisions about risk.” He thoughtfully takes in this information and then says, “You know, there’s lots of risks in roofing.”

True enough, as there are in many other trade disciplines and industries – construction, electrical and mining. As we chat further I explain how, through the research consulting company I contract with, we sometimes interview people from these high risk trades and industries to learn how workers make decisions to use safety equipment and practice worker safety on the job. We present this insight to our clients through our reports and give recommendations (based on the research) on communicating strategically to help change worker behaviour and improve the organization’s overall safety performance. It’s called strategic risk communications and it emphasizes two-way dialogue and information exchange between the communicator and the recipient of information.

Its roots can be traced to a series of chemical accidents in the U.S. and elsewhere (particularly the chemical explosion at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India)  in the 1980s that resulted in Congressional action to mandate organizations or institutions (especially those in the chemical and manufacturing industries) to inform communities of any potential risks of their existence and operations. This was considered part of the public’s “right-to-know.” Risk communications specialists would engage with the public to gain an understanding on how to better focus their messaging, based on what audiences wanted to know. Over time, the discipline deepened to examine how audiences process and act on messages, resulting in a substantial body of risk communication research.

One obvious application area for such research is Occupational Health and Safety, but others include emergency planning and preparedness, public health, product safety, environmental management and assessment, and industrial infrastructure siting (think wind turbines, gas plants or nuclear power plants).

Much of the data is gathered from primary research — in-depth telephone interviews with people (stakeholders) using mostly open-ended questions designed to elicit what they think and why they think that way. What influences their thinking, perception or “mental model” about a particular issue?  The stakeholder mental models are then compared to graphical models depicting expert knowledge about the issue: gaps and alignments between the two are identified and used to design communications strategy and materials. One great feature of this type of research is that it can yields gems of information and insight that could not have been predicted by the experts studying the problem. But that makes sense. When it comes to occupational health and safety, you need to talk to the folks in the field.

Interestingly, I learned one such key insight from my brief conversation with the roofer this morning when he said “we’re supposed to wear safety harnesses when we’re up there, but sometimes the safety harnesses can be risky because we can trip over them”. I found this very interesting and told him that had he mentioned this in a formal research interview on roofer safety, his insight likely would have appeared in a client report.  Ironically, there may be circumstances that warrant deviating from the standard safety procedure to ensure one’s own safety and sometimes those are obvious only to the people actually doing the job. Strategic risk communications research is a useful tool to help uncover that information.

Pity no one communicated with me on the risks of my old shingles. But my new roof is now done and looks terrific, and I come away deeper understanding of the safety risks and reasoning of roofers. I like to think the roofer learned something about strategic risk communications research from me.