22nd November 2018
Health and Safety Nudge Theory

Nudge Nudge, Think Think?

Issues surrounding health and safety in the construction industry are never far from the media headlines. Figures released by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) showed that there were 38 fatal injuries to construction workers in the year to 31 March 2018, representing the largest proportion of recorded workplace deaths.

The HSE has recently launched an initiative to tackle the dangers of site dust, with a focus on respiratory risks and occupational lung disease. Referred to as the ‘construction dust blitz’, the campaign focuses on measures to protect workers’ lungs from the damage that can be caused by asbestos, silica and wood dust. Annually, work-related cancers caused by these substances are estimated to kill around 3,500 working in the industry. The aim is to encourage construction workers to be aware of the risks, and to avoid creating dust or disturbing asbestos, by considering and changing their working practices.

Nudge theory comes of age

Nudging, or using psychological techniques to influence behaviour, is now becoming a more mainstream way of reinforcing safety messages in the construction industry. The theory, first developed by behavioural economist Richard Thaler, is already widely used across a number of industries and involves using subtle ways to change people’s attitudes.

For example, HMRC sends people who are behind on their tax payments messages saying things like “9 out of 10 people in your area are up to date with their tax affairs”. This has led to a 15% rise in people settling their tax affairs. Likewise, many hospitals now send patients SMS messages to reduce missed appointments. Changing the wording of the SMS can influence how successful these are. For example, mentioning the direct costs to the NHS for missing an appointment (£160) helped reduce missed appointments from 11.1% to 8.5%. 

A recent report in Construction News highlighted the nudge techniques used at the Carlsberg headquarters project in Copenhagen. Here, mirrors were placed around all the site entrances. A sign above the mirrors reads “Who is responsible for safety today?”.

Other ‘nudges’ have successfully been employed in the construction sector. One example was the introduction of a gold star system, whereby workers who demonstrate safe behaviours are entered into a weekly prize draw. Another involved having specialists on site who ask scripted questions that encourage workers to think about their working practices. Both are good examples of measures that have contributed to improved site safety. Results were encouraging, with unsafe behaviours reduced by 82% amongst those working at heights, and 93% where moving materials was involved.

Getting the message across

Research from HSE shows that construction companies with 15 employees or fewer account for the majority of fatal accidents. Surprisingly, the number one risk in construction isn’t now physical, but mental. Suicide comes ahead of exhaustion and working at heights as a major industry risk. Quite why this should be the case isn’t clear, but the insecure nature of the job is thought to be a contributory factor.

To combat the risks, it’s important to ensure that workers take regular rest breaks. Developing a culture where everyone looks out for each other, and where it’s safe to speak up if you’re struggling, can go a long way to creating safer working environments. After all, we could all do with a nudge in the right direction from time to time.

Help your clients improve their site safety

At Focus, we believe we have a responsibility to help Brokers help their clients manage risk, in order to keep future premiums and policy terms down. Our online Site Safety Assessment Tool, developed together with our risk management partner Cardinus, is designed to help your clients check their working practices and improve their site safety. It will also give them access to specialist advice from professional risk managers. For more information, click here.