Social media is message for occupational health

Tweets, blogs, and a brave new world

Social media is opening up new avenues for delivering health and safety information. Employee health professionals can download training videos from YouTube, track occupational health news or research on a blog or Twitter, and even communicate with their own employees through social networking sites.

"Social media is a way to connect, it's a marketing tool," says Max Lum, EdD, MPA, a consultant in communication and research translation in The Office of the Director at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). "It's just a more efficient way of being transparent and timely, if you manage it correctly."

NIOSH has made savvy use of social media as a way to disseminate its scientific research and recommendations beyond the usual news releases and journal articles. The agency puts out about 10 to 15 tweets per week and has almost 100,000 Twitter followers. Its science blog has had 400,000 views since it started in 2007 and has posted thousands of comments.

You can find NIOSH photos on Flickr, videos on YouTube, and information on Wikipedia. NIOSH also maintains Myspace and Facebook pages. "We're a research organization that puts out a huge amount of information," says Lum, who notes that NIOSH researchers produce 200 to 250 peer-reviewed journal articles each year. Social media provides another way to reach the public and share information, he says.

Growth is slow but steady

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has made only modest forays into social media. The agency tweets through the Department of Labor account and sometimes issues videos on YouTube. OSHA administrator David Michaels, MD, MPH, and other OSHA officials have answered questions via live web chats.

Some individuals focused on occupational health and safety also maintain Twitter accounts or blogs. For example, Brad Hammock, JD, an attorney with Jackson Lewis in Reston, VA, specializes in occupational health law and maintains a blog and Twitter account. Hammock tries to stick to factual updates and doesn't offer legal opinions on his blog. He has noticed that his posts and tweets are picked up and linked or re-tweeted.

"It creates a loop of information-sharing that you didn't have five years ago," he says. "It's such an effective way to transmit information."

Beyond the generation gap

The main barrier to social media simply might be discomfort with a new way of communicating. After all, aren't tweets just for celebrities? Or teen-agers?

Lum didn't take it too seriously at first when his sons were on blogs or YouTube or Facebook. But then he attended a meeting of the American Marketing Association and learned that marketing professionals were using social media to reach out to a new generation of consumers.

Each type of social media has its benefits. Tweets are short bursts of information, but they can link to web sites, which is an ideal way to spread the word about a conference or workshop. Blogs allow readers to scroll through everyone's comments.

Lum, who was previously the director of the NIOSH Office of Communications, saw the potential for open government through these tools. "It really started with an idea to see if we could get more transparency and reach a larger audience," he says.

Now, NIOSH is exploring creating an "app"— a smartphone application — that would help people select the right respirator. "When I get that first app out, I think it will be really impressive to my children," says Lum.