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Written by
on 03 January 2019


Nudging in the workplace is a subtle psychological technique used to encourage positive behaviour – and it could help improve site safety too.

Your company is duty-bound to continually raise standards of health and safety on site. The HSE expects you to proactively identify opportunities for improvement; being alert allows you to mitigate risks earlier – hopefully, before anyone is injured.

Many of the activities you undertake on site have legal requirements attached. Working in a particularly dusty environment? You must wear a mask to prevent inhalation of particulates. Working at height? You must have suitable guardrails or safety harness in place to prevent falls.

Although these rules are set in stone, employees can – and will – ignore them. Many sites deny entry to workers who arrive without a minimum standard of gear (hard hat, steel toe-capped boots, hi-vis vest) which ensures that they are prepared when they arrive. That may all change once they do gain access, however.

Rule enforcement is essential

Faced with the threat of losing a day’s pay, most workers will ensure they are properly equipped when they arrive. And by having someone monitor the gates every morning, you can ensure these standards are upheld.

As the day wears on though, workers will frequently remove their hard hats as they work. Or leave them in the break room after lunch. Unless you employ a foreman to constantly circle the site to spot equipment infringements, people are exposing themselves to risk.

When it comes to legal requirements like PPE, the “big stick” approach may be entirely appropriate. Under no circumstances can you allow an employee to pose a risk to themselves or others.

Not every activity on site has specific legislation attached. Sometimes safety standards can be raised by encouraging employees changing habits and behaviour to act more responsibly.

But how do you encourage to make those behavioural changes? One technique that’s gaining a lot of attention these days is called “nudging”.

People need choices if you want their behaviour to change

Normally nudging on a building site would be a bad idea – but we’re not talking about physical contact. Nudging is a behavioural science concept that subtly encourages people to make better choices.

Rather than creating a whole load of rules and punishing people for failing to follow them, nudging uses positive psychological reinforcement to help them make the right decisions to protect themselves and others.

Because the biggest problem is that people don’t make rational choices. We like to think that given instructions and facts, people will always make the “right” choice, or act in the way we expect. But the reality is that humans almost always make choices based on emotion or instinct.

The reality is that people respond better to choices. Simply telling people to want to do is ineffective when you are trying to encourage behavioural change. They feel that decisions and outcomes are forced on them, they have no say in the situation, and they mentally disengage. Any behavioural changes will be temporary – and employees will not go above or beyond.

Nudging towards the right choice

Nudging uses the illusion of choice to push people towards making the right choices. There are many ways to achieve this, but to succeed you will need to carefully consider the decisions your employees face, the choice you want them to make, and how you can subtly nudge them in that direction.

This is not as difficult as it sounds. Say you have a problem managing foot traffic along gangways, as workers are unable to pass each other easily. Under normal site protocol, you would simply issue an instruction telling everyone to keep left when using the gangway – for a day or two they might comply, but the situation will quickly return to normal.

The nudge approach is slightly different. Instead of issuing instructions, you simply paint footprints on the left-hand side of the gangway. This visual cue is a form of instruction, but workers can still choose to ignore it if they want. But the reality is that they will follow the footsteps and stick to the left-hand side. They think they have chosen their own path, but really you have nudged them into making the right choice.

How to make nudging work

There are two keys to making nudges work:

  1. Plan out the decisions people face

To design an effective nudge you need to know what the decisions your employees face and what the “correct” outcome is. Wherever possible you should engineer situations in such a way that the decision is reduced to two clear options. In the case of the gangway, employees can walk on the left or right – there are no other options.

  1. Maintain the illusion of choice

Remember, people want freedom of choice, so although your nudge will push them towards a specific option, they need to feel as though they can choose to do the opposite. They will almost always make the right choice regardless – but they must have a choice.

Get creative

There are many ways in which you can use nudging on a construction site to raise standards – you just need to be a little creative. For further help and advice on how to apply behavioural nudges successfully on your construction projects, please get in touch.

Now it’s your turn

Have your say in the comments section below.

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A chartered safety and risk management practitioner with 20+ years of experience. David provides a healthy dose of how-to articles, advice and guidance to make compliance easier for construction professionals, Architects and the built environment. Get social with David on Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin.

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