George Lucas Educational Foundation

Technical Writing: Hazard Communication Enriched

Technical Writing: Hazard Communication Enriched

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T. R. Girill Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab. Technical Writing: Hazard Communication Enriched The Change Most science teachers are familiar with Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs), summaries of chemical hazards loosely standardized in the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations in 1994 (29 CFR 1910.1200). On March 26, 2012, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration revised this influential standard. While these changes are gradual (rolling out over the next three years), they are also major: * Coverage: The new rules apply to about 945,000 chemicals, handled by employees in about 7 million workplaces. Many people will therefore encounter the new "Safety Data Sheets" (SDSs) and their associated chemical labels. * Consistency: Different chemical suppliers interpreted the old rules differently, so many MSDSs were incomplete, confusing, or inconsistently organized. Now, the same 16 rows must always appear in the same numbered order on every SDS (student-relevant example below). * Labels and Classification: For the first time, hazard communication in the U.S. has embraced the grandly titled "Globally Harmonized System" (GHS) already used in the European Union and Japan. Significant GHS features include three that are also strongly reflected in the new Common Core State Standards for learning effective technical communication: 1. Descriptions. These must now cover responsible chemical sources (company name, address, and even emergency contact number) as well as specific biological hazards (e.g., "May cause liver and kidney damage"). 2. Instructions. These must now enable safe interactions (e.g., "Wear protective gloves" or "Use only nonsparking tools"). 3. Text/graphics integration. To focus attention on hazards and to improve label usefulness across different language communities, GHS labels supplement words with standardized pictograms (for example, a stylized flame if the labeled chemical burns). The Opportunity Living through a major standards shift like this can be annoying. But it can also be a great opportunity--to build basic student writing skills as well as to pursue key Common Core learning goals. Such a change "means an authoring avalanche is about to hit," explains safety consultant Jason Massey ("Global Harmonization System Adoption," Professional Safety, March 2011, p. 71). Commercially, companies will turn to SDS database vendors, who will employ army of chemists to draft complete and compliant descriptions. Academically, your students can mimic this work for an authentic exercise in text design and revision that has practical, high-stakes consequences. Applying basic usability principles to safety messages can involve: * criticizing currently weak Safety Data Sheets--for instance, these two for ammonium nitrate (they omit or trivialize the SDS sections not mandated by the pre-2012 standards): * designing better alternatives--by balancing completeness, relevance for the different tasks and audiences addressed in each SDS section (row), and clarity for reliable reading when a problem occurs. * explaining WHY their alternative text really improves the original, feature by feature for each audience--a nice exercise in argumentative analysis (another key Common Core nonfiction communication goal). Safety Data Sheets are self-scaffolding. They have more visual cues and more overt structure than a science abstract or a technical report. But otherwise, they expose students to all the same writing decisions and content-management moves. You can point out, for example, how a helpful Safety Data Sheet includes (while an unhelpful one omits) section 13 on disposal information. This added content really comprises disposal INSTRUCTIONS (not just descriptions) because how-to information is just what the audience for section 13 needs. And finally, simply using a standardized section number, row format, and row location enables rapid retrieval of these disposal instructions during a chemical crisis.

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