We consider the latest behavioural science thinking for nudging OSH behaviours.
Imagine you go out shopping for a belt and find one you like for £12. Somebody you trust tells you that you could buy exactly the same belt from a shop five minutes’ walk away for £7. Would you go and buy the cheaper belt? Now imagine you are out shopping for a TV and find one you like for £499. Somebody you trust tells you that you could buy exactly the same TV from a shop five minutes’ walk away for £494. Would you go and buy the cheaper TV? Behavioural economists have conducted experiments and found that, overwhelmingly, people would go and buy the cheaper belt, but not the cheaper TV. And yet, the two questions address an identical choice: would you walk five minutes to save £5?
Research has shown that humans are really good at making relative judgements based on the context we are in. In the above example, saving £5 on a £12 purchase is a relatively large saving compared with saving £5 on £499. Using relative judgements is a good rule of thumb as it helps us make decisions quickly. Yet, when we compare our quick, relative judgements against each other, they don’t always make sense. The result is that the context of our decisions ends up mattering a great deal. And we are often not aware of how these mental shortcuts make us act differently in different situations.
Heuristics, or shortcuts in our decision-making, get us through our lives without having to laboriously think through every decision. Mostly, they help us make decisions which are to our benefit. But sometimes they result in systematic biases that can lead us away from what we actually mean to do. How can these insights about how humans behave – known as behavioural insights - be applied to help people stay safe at work?
Two behavioural science frameworks
The EAST framework focuses on four simple principles to encourage a behaviour. Make it:
Easy – design for safety with defaults, make the safe behaviour the easy one;
Attractive – attract attention, frame safety messages appropriately;
Social – show that other people perform the safe behaviour; and
Timely – prompt people when they are likely to be receptive.
The TESTS framework manages implementation of a behavioural insights intervention:
Target – define the problem;
Explore – map relevant behaviours;
Solution – design the intervention using EAST;
Trial – design and launch trial, evaluate, learn and adapt; and
Scale – increase adoption of effective interventions.
An article in the July 2018 issue of IOSH Magazine (bit.ly/39VLjqP) explained how behavioural economists and psychologists have explored and characterised these biases and how they have used their understanding of them to influence public policy outcomes. It is nearly a decade since the UK government became the first in the world to set up the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), a department within the UK civil service dedicated to applying behavioural science to public policy issues. In 2014, BIT was turned into a social purpose company – co-owned by the Cabinet Office, the innovation charity Nesta and employees – to serve a wider range of public sector partners. In recent years, there’s also been a flourishing of in-house behavioural insights teams within Whitehall and public sector bodies, in other countries, and within private sector enterprises.
Behavioural insights need to be built into the HSE management system for them to be sustained
We might not be aware of it, but as a result of this work, we are being nudged to save energy by getting feedback on our consumption, we are being defaulted into joining company pension plans, we are paying our taxes earlier and, by consuming less sugar in drinks, we are less of a burden on health services. To borrow a phrase from business, a policy ‘unicorn’ is one that has had an impact of more than £1bn. Each of these behavioural interventions has grown into a policy unicorn. There are many more smaller but nevertheless significant examples in healthcare, welfare and education, where nudges have influenced outcomes that are beneficial for individuals, government and society as a whole.
Behavioural scientists talk about creating choice architecture, which will nudge people towards target behaviours. As OSH professionals, we have a huge opportunity to apply the same skills to create choice architecture in workplaces that will nudge people towards safer behaviours.
Three myths of behavioural insights for safety
Widespread communications campaigns are needed to change behaviour
Thousands of Kenyans die in road traffic accidents each year, many in public transport minibuses. Researchers wanted to test the effectiveness of a radio safety campaign on safe driving by comparing insurance claims in regions where the radio campaign had run and places it had not. The evaluation found no evidence of reduced insurance claims where the campaign had aired. Another initiative did make a difference to insurance claims: putting stickers inside the minibuses which encouraged passengers to speak up against bad driving. The study found that the stickers reduced insurance claims by 25–33% and were associated with lower average speeds. The stickers were a timely reminder for passengers to speak up in case drivers were driving recklessly. The most effective stickers were ones which included the collective action phrase “Together we can”.
People act unsafely because they don’t know the risks
A typical reaction to unsafe behaviour is to think of it as an awareness problem: if people only knew the risks, they would not behave unsafely. However, informing people about risks may not be the most effective way to change behaviour. A study in UK motorway service station toilets found that a risk-focused message, “Washing hands with soap avoids 47% of disease”, increased hand washing by 7.6% for men and 6.5% for women. They tested this against a socially-focused message “Is the person next to you washing with soap?” They found the socially-focused message was more effective: it increased hand washing by 12.1% and 10.9% respectively. Referring to monitoring and social norms had a bigger impact than just informing people about risks.
Managers and supervisors don’t need nudging
It’s a common complaint from managers and supervisors that, despite good intentions, they never seem to find as much time as they would like to be out in the workplace. Emails and paperwork always seem to get in the way. In petrochemical plants, the required workplace PPE consists of flame retardant overalls, boots, helmets and safety glasses. One group of managers in such a facility surmised that the hassle of getting changed into plant PPE, though small, was a barrier to getting out from behind their desks and into the field. They made a rule for themselves that everybody would get changed into their overalls and boots as soon as they arrived at work in the morning. Though not evaluated quantitatively, a qualitative assessment indicated that the removal of that small amount of friction had indeed increased the number of field visits.
East is east
If you want to encourage a behaviour, make it easy, attractive, social and timely (EAST). Although there is published guidance on applying behavioural insights to public policy, including BIT’s EAST framework (bit.ly/2FAlcI0), until now there has been little published on how to do this for workplace health and safety.
Peter Webb was, until recently, regional HSE director for a petrochemical company. The firm had achieved some impressive improvements in its OSH performance, but the performance had levelled off. In 2017 he proposed behavioural insights as a way to get off the plateau and help the company towards its Zero Harm goal. Training was given to key personnel using BIT’s EAST and TESTS frameworks (see box) and the sites were tasked with finding target safety behaviours and implementing appropriate nudges. But there were two learnings necessary to take it further:
- behavioural insights need to be built into the HSE management system for them to be sustained; and
- there was a need for guidance on how to apply EAST in a workplace health and safety setting.
The company considered four options (see box, below) for building behavioural insights into its management system, and concluded that its Behaviour Based Safety (BBS) system was the most suitable platform. One difference in the behavioural science approach is its focus on rigorous testing of new initiatives to measure if they actually change behaviour. In organisational settings, where projects may be influencing both individual and group behaviour, it is even more important to understand the context of the behaviour and to test if projects have their desired effect. BBS programmes are amenable to this when they collect and analyse information on specific behaviours.
The company engaged BIT to support two pilots, which are currently underway, and to write new guidance, EAST for Health and Safety: Applying behavioural insights to make workplaces safer (bit.ly/2N4a9Lx).
Some early results from the pilots are:
- frontline people find nudging concepts to be a useful way to refresh a BBS programme;
- OSH teams are moving beyond writing procedures to thinking about how they can make it easier for staff to follow through on what the procedures say; and
- management is considering how they can use incident and near-miss data to more effectively target behavioural interventions (and measure their impact).
Possibly the most important and difficult stage of the TESTS intervention framework is identifying a suitable behaviour to target. It requires bringing together competence in behavioural insights, OHS management and workforce perspective on how the work is actually done. But once we learn a little about how fundamental behavioural insights are to human behaviour, not only does it inspire us to find innovative solutions to OHS behavioural challenges, it also sheds new light on why things we tried in the past did or did not achieve the results we expected.
While behavioural insights are now widely used in public policy and private sector settings, there are more opportunities for applying behavioural science to improve safety outcomes. Alongside new applications to individual behaviour, we hope to see more research focused on group behaviours, as well as the relationship between individual and group behaviours.
We are working with organisations to apply behavioural insights including testing new ways to improve health and safety, gender diversity and workforce performance. We look forward to working with more organisations interested in this approach.