It’s Friday and for many in the UK, the weekend means a trip to the local chippy to enjoy some fish and chips. But getting fish to our tables has a hidden high cost: commercial fishing remains one of the nation’s deadliest professions. One of the leading causes of death among fisherman? Not wearing a lifejacket. Encouraging fishermen to wear lifejackets (or other personal flotation devices) consistently is the focus of regulation and safety campaigns.
Human behaviour, or human factors as it is known in the safety world, is an important part of keeping us safe at work. Even in our increasingly mechanised world, factories, warehouses, boats and plants still rely on people to react to and deal with the systems in place. According to the International Labour Organisation, workplace accidents cause hundreds of thousands of injuries and deaths each year. And several of the most high profile accidents in recent history were in part caused by human error.
We need to design systems and processes that work with the grain of human behaviour, rather than against it. Today, we’re publishing our report on applying behavioural insights to occupational health and safety to help practitioners think about how they can apply the science of human behaviour to improve safety at work.
Many of the ideas in our report (structured around our flagship EAST framework for behaviour change) will be familiar to safety specialists. What is new is our focus on systematic testing and building evidence for what works. We found two recent examples particularly interesting:
- Encouraging safe behaviour with a meaningful nudge. In China, managers at a garment factory were having issues with workers dropping cloth scraps on the floor. Scraps on the floor make accidents more likely and also reduce productivity as it takes longer to tidy up at the end of a shift. The managers had tried a few different approaches to reduce the amount of scraps ending up on the floor, such as providing bins near the production line and fines for workers who did not keep their area clean, but nothing had worked. The managers worked with researchers to test whether putting gold coin stickers (a symbol of good luck) on the floor next to workers had an impact on the amount of scraps thrown on the floor. The researchers measured the impact of the stickers using a stepped wedge randomised controlled trial. They found that the stickers reduced waste on the floor by an average of 20%, a statistically significant reduction.
- Using employee networks to reduce accident rates. In Chile, the Chilean Safety Association wanted to see if they could increase the effectiveness of their safety outreach. Each year, the Association visits its industrial clients to conduct safety assessments. Following the assessment, they produce a prevention plan that they share with the firm. The Association partnered with researchers to run several randomised controlled trials to see if different messages could have an impact on accident rates. The most effective message, the researchers found, was the one delivered directly to employees. The researchers created pamphlets based on the Association’s personalised prevention plan and sent 20 copies to each firm. They also sent a cover letter which asked that the pamphlets should be distributed to employees. Accident rates at firms who were sent the pamphlets fell by 15% over the 12 months of the study compared to firms who did not receive the pamphlets.
These examples illustrate the impact behavioural approaches and careful evaluation can have on health and safety. It is why we hope this report inspires stakeholders in the public, private and academic sectors to collaborate to build better evidence on how we can help people be safe at work.