Presentation at Culture of Prevention Symposium in Helsinki

Many thanks to the wonderful organizers of the International Symposium on a Culture of Prevention in Helsinki.  As I could not be there in person, they set up a Skype link so I could give my presentation.  The slides are available at these links:

version with video clips ( you will have to download to view the video clips)

pdf version without video clips

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Workplace Health Without Borders video

Workplace Health Without Borders is an international non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to preventing occupational disease worldwide.  Please learn more through this video  and our web site


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Our presentation on Behavioural Economics at the Institute for Work and Health Symposium on Financial Incentives

Congratulations to the Institute for Work and Health  on their very successful Symposium on Financial Incentives.

Below are links to view or download the slides for our talk on what we can learn about prevention incentives from behavioural economics.

Version with video clips (47 MB) (you will need to download the file to view the videos)

Version without video clips (4 MB)

Posted in Health and Safety Motivation | 1 Comment

Whose safety culture is it anyway?

Safety culture can be described as the constellation of shared values, attitudes and beliefs that influence health and safety practice in a workplace. But definitions and perspectives on safety culture abound to the point of hopeless confusion. The worst, in my opinion, are of the cheerleader variety – aimed at selling a system or a survey that purports to revolutionize your workplace.  My own perspective is rather more cynical – there are no magic bullets or quick fixes that work for everyone.  Often caught in the middle of management and workers, health and safety professionals must discover what works within the social environment of a specific organization.

Many prescriptions for achieving a good safety culture presume that top management is committed to and understands the concept.  This is far from reality in many workplaces.  Too often, management thinks that the responsibility for health and safety success rests with the OHS professionals themselves, who are expected to influence worker behavior in a milieu that tacitly communicates that health and safety is a low priority.

The Australian researcher Andrew Hopkins has consistently pointed out the contradictory views of safety culture that can lead to confusion and fruitless or, worse, harmful, interventions. He cautions against the “formulation …that … sees culture as a matter of individual attitudes – attitudes which can be cultivated at work, but which in the final analysis are characteristics of individuals, not the organisations to which they belong”.  Hopkins warns that such views “ignore the latent conditions which underlie every workplace accident, highlighting instead workers’ attitudes as the cause of accidents.”  As Hopkins point out,

“…, creating the right mindset among frontline workers is not a strategy which can be effective in dealing with hazards about which those workers have no knowledge and which can only be identified and controlled by management, using systematic hazard identification procedures. It is management culture rather than the culture of the workforce in general which is most relevant here. If culture is understood as mindset, what is required is a management mindset that every major hazard will be identified and controlled and a management commitment to make available whatever resources are necessary to ensure that the workplace is safe.”

In a provocative case study, Greg Walker of Lock Haven University describes a workplace where such management commitment was decidedly absent.  In the face of management abdication of responsibility, Walker concludes, workers will go ahead and create their own safety “counterculture”– in this case, one that is likely to give OHS professionals nightmares. (See  Walker, G.W., A safety counterculture challenge to a “safety climate”, Safety Science,  Volume 48, Issue 3, March 2010, pages 333-341) In a “pathological organization,” Walker says, “ workers as a group will socially construct danger, injury and safety for themselves”.

Walker also provides a compelling, if repellent, portrayal of worker attitudes to “Lonnie the Safety Man” – a figure we should all take to heart as the antithesis of a role model.

“At least once a month ‘‘Lonnie the safety man’ visits from the company headquarters to review what the blue-collar employees know about working around heavy machinery, in confined spaces with little oxygen and in dusty, explosive environments. But the blue-collar audience ridicules him and contradicts his messages at each opportunity.

How can we avoid becoming  “Lonnie the Safety Man” by being the mouthpiece of a hypocritical organization?   Most writing and speaking on motivating health and safety is aimed at only at the workforce.  But what can OHS professionals do when they work in real-life organizations where the management mindset on health and safety is less than ideal?  These are questions I’d like to explore further and get ideas from people who grapple with this dilemma every day. I would start by suggesting that our approach to motivating and influencing must be bi-directional – aimed at both management and the workforce.  And the tactics we use may be different for these different audiences.  In a previous post, I looked at the issue of motivating management. I will be speaking again on this subject at AIHce in June of this year and would love to meet anyone who wants to discuss.

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Motivating Health and Safety – is it all about money?

Back when I was a public employee working on promoting health and safety, a truth we took to be self-evident (and evidence-based nonetheless) was that success in workplace health and safety must start with the commitment of management at the top of the organization. Consequently, a major pre-occupation was how to motivate employers to demonstrate a sincere commitment to health and safety. (Talk of motivation in health and safety customarily focuses on motivation of employees; to my way of thinking, this puts the cart before the horse — if management is motivated, the motivation of employees will follow.)

Hence, we did some research on what motivates employers to care about health and safety. Results showed that employer motivation falls into three general categories: social (also called moral), legal and financial. The prevailing wisdom was that financial motivation was paramount: if we could only demonstrate to employers the benefits of health and safety to the bottom line, the scales would fall from their eyes and their workplaces would be transformed. Lots of resources are available to help calculate the financial costs and benefits of health and safety, and many incentive programs are designed to enhance these economic rewards. (Contact me if you want me to point you to some of these resources.)

Without denying the power of finances to motivate executives, I have long felt that social or moral motivation tends to be undervalued. So I take notice of those pundits who turn the prevailing economic wisdom on its head. Behavioral economics has lots to say on the topic of how our choices often fly in the face of conventional economic theory that posits humans to be strictly rational benefit-maximizers. (See work by Daniel Ariely and Richard Thaler.) Two popular speakers on the current circuit are Clay Shirky and Daniel Pink –both spoke last year at the RSA in London, and their complete talks are available as podcasts here.

Pink is focused on motivation, but largely of employees – Shirky comes at the topic tangentially as a corollary of cognitive surplus. But they both cited the same example that I think is relevant to my topic: the story of daycare centres in Israel that had a problem with parents picking up their kids late. To try to correct this problem, the centres imposed a fine for late pick-ups. The result? The rate of late pick-ups tripled! The reason, Pink and Shirky speculate, is that the parents’ concern for the daycare staff and the desire not to inconvenience them by making them stay late evaporated when the late pick-ups became a commodity that could be paid for.

This reminded me of interviews I conducted with high OHS-performing employers, in an effort to gather data on the financial benefits of good OHS performance. The employers maintained they did not track data that directly correlated health and safety with financial performance, because for them health and safety was a matter of concern for their employees and not motivated by cost-cutting.

The highlight of the daycare centre example is that the rate of late pick-ups stayed high even after the fine was removed. Hence this is not simply a story of contrasting motivators – it is also a cautionary tale of the danger of transforming social concern into an economic concern. Having done so, we may not be able to recover what we lose.

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The Health and Safety Catalyst

Catalyst: noun.
1. A substance, usually used in small amounts relative to the reactants, that modifies and increases the rate of a reaction
2. Someone or something that helps bring about a change.

As health and safety professionals, we often try to play this catalyst role – affecting the reaction among the managers and workers who ultimately determine the state of health and safety in a workplace. Many of us have found that, while our training has been in the technical aspects of industrial hygiene and workplace safety, our success is more dependent on the human dimension and the workplace relationships that affect the decisions and practices shaping the work environment.

This site is based on the premise that health and safety professionals can learn a lot from other disciplines – particularly those that examine how and why people make the choices they do.

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