Some OSH campaigns become wallpaper quicker than others

Former editor, IOSH Magazine

Most initiatives have a shelf life, especially in the workplace. Familiarity may not breed contempt but it surely breeds indifference.

It’s a biological necessity. If our brains lacked the capacity to downgrade or screen out repeated stimuli, and the trains running past your house were as distracting the 1,000th time as the first, we would be constantly overstimulated and incapable of filtering and prioritising vital information.

The numbing effect of repetition is well recognised by pay and benefits specialists who have long known that, no matter how rewarding a bonus scheme, it will incentivise people only so long before its effect on performance dies away and it has to be replaced.

The management practice of kaizen, process improvement through incremental changes, was one of the components – along with just-in-time manufacturing and waste minimisation – of the Toyota Production System, developed by the vehicle manufacturer in the middle of the 20th century.

A variant on kaizen involves making small changes often, even where they are not expected to generate improvement. The idea is that the variations stimulate attention to the work environment and stop people working on the equivalent of  a plane’s autopilot.

Constant change sounds exhausting and time-consuming to sustain, but a less frequent periodic renewal of any initiative is a must to stop it becoming like wallpaper and losing salience. That rule applies as much to initiatives to promote safe behaviour as to productivity schemes.

If you are due to update an OSH message or planning a new campaign, try to accentuate the positive.

Psychologists distinguish between approach goals and avoidance goals. If you achieve an avoidance goal – exercising more to stave off heart disease – the best you have done is avoid something that frightens you. An approach goal, by contrast – exercising more to be happier and fitter to play with your children or grandchildren – gives you something beneficial to aim for.

Studies show people are more likely to sign up to approach goals and, crucially, more likely to stick to their commitment to achieve them.

That’s useful to know in choosing the wording for a wellbeing initiative but also in a safety programme. In our April 2017 issue we noted that some airlines have switched from trying to reduce employee fatigue (an avoidance goal) to promoting alertness (an approach goal). 

Couching an objective in positive language – what Andrew Sharman referred to as actively “creating safety” in his book From Accidents to Zero – is more dynamic than one that talks in terms of reducing harm. The end goal is the same: everyone goes home in one piece every day, but the positive message is more likely to resonate. It may also take longer to reach its “use-by” date.


Louis Wustemann is former editor, IOSH Magazine. He was previously editor of Health and Safety at Work magazine and Environment in Business. He has written, edited and consulted on health and safety, environmental and employment matters for more than 25 years.

Add new comment