6 September 2019

People over procedure: using behavioural science to improve health and safety

So you need your staff to stay safe and healthy at work... Put a poster up in the office kitchen, right?

Our behaviour science expert, Chloe Foy, suggests that perhaps, where health and safety are concerned, getting people to pay attention goes a little deeper than posters. 

Being safe and healthy is part of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s right up there, along with water and warmth, yet many businesses still overlook it, often taking a financial hit as a result.

We make between 2,000 and 10,000 decisions every day, and just one can cost us a lot (even our life, in some cases). But according to the HSE, over a million workers are injured or made ill by their work in Great Britain each year, and the total cost of workplace self-reported injuries and ill health in 2016/17 was £15 billion.

Posters and procedures won’t necessarily increase health and safety, just like better technology and bigger firewalls won’t assure cyber security. Good health and safety must start with your first line of defence: your employees. And there are some small, cost-effective interventions that can see huge effects and changes in behaviour.


Behavioural nudges to suit your audience

A large construction retro fit company wanted to tackle unsafe behaviours across their site. When using flexible scaffolding platforms and trolleys, colleagues’ bad behaviours included not locking the gate, not locking wheels, and leaning far beyond a safe distance. Having tried posters and training to little effect, it was time for a new approach – Nudge Theory.

After better understanding the worksite culture, the team came up with some simple but effective interventions to encourage people to change their behaviours for the better: 

Bacon sandwich reward

In return for coming in off-duty and spending half a day walking the site to observe and address unsafe behaviour, construction site operatives were rewarded with a bacon sandwich. Simple, but bloomin’ tasty.

Gold card implementations

On passing their health and safety training, each employee was given a gold card, which was backdated for long-standing employees to when they started. This is known as ‘implicit value’ and is something Amex and Twitter use to their advantage by saying ‘member since’. To reward good behaviour, every Friday, all gold cards were placed in a bowl for a raffle, with random prizes for the first card picked out – like a 50-inch TV, right in time for the world cup. Lotteries can be a powerful way to incentivise people and conjure up feelings around the prospect of winning. 

If unsafe behaviours were observed, your gold card, and those of your entire team, would be removed, so it was a real team effort. Suddenly locking the gate and the wheels had a whole new importance. 

Canteen environment

After evaluating the canteen they realised it was a bit too functional, not very inspiring and littered with posters that no one was really taking much notice of. They provided more access to more natural light using mirrors, put in plants and removed all health and safety messaging. There’s not a lot of good research on colour and behaviour, but based on the famous 1979 study which showed that painting prison walls pink could significantly reduce aggressive behaviour they also decided to try this (check out Adam Atler’s world bestseller on this idea). 

Planning & preparation

Work time was reallocated, ensuring planning and preparation was seen as a routine part of work. 

And the results? They speak for themselves.

82% reduction in unsafe behaviour at height 

92% reduction in unsafe behaviour with trolleys


The impact of emotion

Using emotion in safety messages is nothing new – remember those terrifying car crash ads? Campaigns have typically focussed on the negative, yet there isn’t much research to prove they are effective in changing behaviour. One construction company used humour, imagery, simple diagrams and curiosity to encourage active learning around health and safety.

The result? They exceeded expectations with an unprecedented reduction of incident rates, keeping everyone safer at work.


Measuring success

Setting objectives around health and safety and measuring colleagues’ understanding and behaviours, both before and after an intervention, will make it easier for you to prove the effectiveness of your health and safety efforts.

Good health and safety comms require you to be brave with your messaging, moving away from systems, procedures and processes to something more human that your people will buy into. 


‘Tell me and I may forget

Show me and I may remember

Involve me and I learn’

Benjamin Franklin 


Here at Synergy, we’ve worked with national water and waste businesses, international airlines and now, a global paper manufacturing company to understand what will resonate with employees, cut through the noise and provide a creative and strategic approach to being healthier and safer at work.

For more insight into how to use a strategic approach to your health and safety campaign or project, speak to chloe@mccannsynergy.com

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