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Nudge in the right direction: Using psychology to boost safety

‘Nudging’ – using psychological techniques to influence people’s behaviour – was employed by former PM David Cameron and is now being applied in the construction industry. But how effective is it? Lucy Alderson takes a look. 

Chances are that, at some point in your life, you have been ‘nudged’.

It may have been a letter from HMRC explaining how your taxes have been spent – and stressing their importance to local services. You may have been persuaded to switch to a different energy supplier, or to sign up to the organ donation register.

When Amsterdam Airport Schipol introduced fly stickers in the centre of every urinal in 1999 – to encourage men to aim better – it resulted in an 80 per cent reduction in spillages.

Whatever the method, it is likely you will have been influenced to change your behaviour without even knowing it.

The ‘nudge theory’ was first developed by behavioural economist Richard Thaler. Convinced by the concept, David Cameron set up his own ‘nudge unit’ in 2010 when the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition came to power. His reported aim was to identify subtle ways to change public behaviour.

Since then, the theory has gained momentum outside of the public sector. For example, financial services firms such as HSBC have developed apps that send messages to customers about their spending habits.

And now, it is making its way into the construction industry.

Better behaviour

Although nudge theory entered the mainstream nearly a decade ago, Tim Marsh, a leader in UK research into behavioural safety in construction, says the industry may actually have been ‘nudging for’ years.

This approach is synonymous with behavioural safety, he says, which the industry had been looking into before nudge theory started gaining a wider audience. Indeed, Dr Marsh himself has been researching behavioural safety in construction since the early 1990s. “Construction was slow to catch up with behavioural safety, but increasingly over the last decade […] it’s really caught up,” he says.

Engineering consultant Ramboll is one company that has been sold on the benefits of nudging.

Following a successful trial of the theory at its Carlsberg headquarters project in Copenhagen (pictured, below), in 2017 the firm announced nudging would become a permanent feature among its health and safety managers’ resources.

Carlsberg Ramboll Copenhagen nudge theory

Carlsberg Ramboll Copenhagen nudge theory

Ramboll trialled the theory at its Carlsberg HQ development in Copenhagen

One of the techniques employed was the use of mirrors around all entrances to the Carlsberg site. A sign was placed above the mirrors which read, ‘Who is responsible for safety today?’ to remind workers that they all had equal responsibility for health and safety.

No accidents occurred on site during the project.

Pink walls and gold stars

Most recently, fit-out specialist Overbury adopted the technique on the refurbishment of Shell’s headquarters, with some interesting results.

The company was looking for new ways of mitigating health and safety risks. Overbury appointed Cowry, a behavioural economics consultancy, to introduce a series of bespoke nudges on the project.

Cowry behavioural psychologists and economists conducted site visits and identified five onsite behaviours that were challenging health and safety: workers feeling their opinions/contributions were not always heard; operatives downplaying risks on site; workers not taking enough breaks; safe behaviour going unrewarded while dangerous behaviour was punished; and frequent occasions when workers could choose to use equipment unsafely.

The team also suggested that time pressures and the male-dominated environment could lead to poor decision-making.

Cowry developed three interventions to tackle these challenges and improve health and safety: painting the canteen a shade of pink proven to reduce stress hormones; introducing a gold card system whereby workers who demonstrated safe behaviours entered a weekly prize lottery; and having specialists walk around site asking scripted questions that prompt workers to think about safety.

The outcome

The aim was to reduce unsafe behaviours in two key areas: working at height and material movement (see box).

Overbury compared onsite behaviours before and after the introduction of the nudge initiatives to measure how successful the programme had been. It found that unsafe behaviours had been reduced by 82 per cent for working at height and 93 per cent for material movements.

Cowry head of commercial and marketing Erskine Stewart says that, while the site team questioned how effective nudging would be at first, its benefits were soon recognised. “We had some interesting reactions to the pink walls in the canteen in particular,” he says. “The contractors weren’t a fan of the pink […] but the site supervisors bought into the work that we were doing.”

Overbury Shell nudge theory pink canteen 3

Overbury Shell nudge theory pink canteen 3

Cowry painted the canteen at Overbury’s Shell refurb a shade of pink to reduce stress hormones

Overbury health and safety manager Eoin Murphy admits he also had his doubts about Cowry’s initiatives. “I was also sceptical about the canteen in particular,” he says. “But the figures don’t lie.”

He adds that the gold card system was well received by workers and the scripted site-walks represented an improvement on the previous safety walkarounds employed.

“We did operative walkarounds before Cowry came on board, but Cowry helped to tweak them and made small but scientific, evidence-backed changes, which again improved the feedback we got,” Mr Murphy says. “When we stopped doing the operative walkarounds during a quiet period between phases, the operatives themselves were asking us to bring them back. That to me is as big a win as you get in health, safety and wellbeing.”

Following the success of nudge theory techniques in improving safe behaviour, Overbury is rolling them out across every site that has been in operation since June this year.

Cowry and Overbury are also exploring nudge theory technology, such as virtual reality training to simulate dangerous behaviours and encourage workers to avoid them.

Benefits to the wider industry

While larger companies like Ramboll and Overbury may be driving forward behavioural safety initiatives, construction still remains one of the most dangerous industries to work in, with the majority of fatal accidents involving small businesses.

As a result, the Health and Safety Executive conducted research in May this year to better understand attitudes and behaviours towards safety among smaller construction firms and how these can be improved.

It conducted face-to-face interviews with 51 small businesses and 16 clients. The HSE found that many think health and safety slowed projects down and cost time and money, and there was generally a negative view held of those who performed a compliance role on site.

“We had some interesting reactions to the pink walls in the canteen in particular… the contractors weren’t a fan of the pink […] but the site supervisors bought into the work that we were doing”

Erskine Stewart, Cowry

Furthermore, clients of small construction firms had poor knowledge of health and safety regulations and did not think these rules should be their responsibility.

Dr Marsh agrees work needs to be done to improve behavioural safety at SME level, adding that larger companies can have a huge influence in changing attitudes.

“There is work to be done at the SME level,” he says. “Increasingly, the big players are taking it very seriously. The more times an SME looks at a big player and thinks they really mean it when they say they are committed to health and safety, the better. That’s the most important thing.”

He adds that larger firms are doing good work by inviting smaller companies on training courses, which is helping to cascade best practice down the supply chain.

Nudges and mental health

It’s not only physical safety on site that nudge theory can help improve.

Dr Marsh says the industry is leading the way in using nudge theory psychology to address mental health across the sector’s workforce. Research conducted by Construction News earlier this year showed one in four construction workers have considered suicide, and 57 per cent have experienced a mental health issue.

Although the industry is facing a huge mental health challenge, companies are taking significant steps forward, according to Dr Marsh – with nudge theory among the tools deployed. “Other industries are actually looking to construction on this [improving mental health],” he says.

“When we stopped doing the operative walkarounds during a quiet period between phases, the operatives themselves were asking us to bring them back”

Eoin Murphy, Overbury

He adds that, with initiatives like Mates in Mind and mental health first aiders being welcomed by the industry, more workers are asking their colleagues if they are ok, encouraging more people to open up when they have a problem.

“What this does is that it completely transforms a business culture,” Dr Marsh says. “Hats off to those taking a lead on mental health […] people are taking this seriously.”

Relatively small changes, such as a well-phrased poster on site or a question that gets workers thinking differently, can help contractors enforce the right behaviours and improve health and safety performance.

While larger, more forward-thinking construction firms may have the awareness and resources to take this forward, work still needs to be done to demonstrate the benefits down the supply chain.

All it takes is a little nudge.

The seven deadly sins

Overbury’s aim was to eradicate any unsafe behaviours associated with the areas of working at height and material movement.

The firm worked with Cowry to identify key behaviours – seven for each area – that needed to be changed. Each of the two sets were referred to as ‘the seven deadly sins’. The first three applied to both work at height and moving materials:

  • Area – The team were told to check the surrounding area for hazards and risks, such as hanging ceiling hazards and uneven surfaces.
  • Brakes – Workers were instructed to check that the brakes were applied when using platforms and podiums to work at height. The wheels on these pieces of equipments risked being left unlocked, making them unstable.
  • Check – There were labels attached to equipment that were used to monitor its safety. Workers were told to periodically check these labels and mark them as safe to use (signed and dated to confirm this).

The remaining four ‘sins’ were different for each of the two areas covered:

Working at height:

  • Don’t Lean – Workers were told not to lean on the edges of the podiums or platforms when working at heights. Leaning typically happens when workers are looking to cut corners, but it can result in slipping and falling.
  • Don’t Climb – Climbing without the correct equipment can result in falls and accidents.
  • Don’t Surf – Operatives were instructed to climb down and move a podium along when moving between jobs at height, rather than stay at height and use the wheels to ‘surf’ or coast from one section to the next. This could be dangerous if there was equipment on, or holes on the floor.
  • Don’t Bunny Hop – Similar to ‘surfing’, operatives were advised never to use their body weight to jump themselves and the podium across to the next part of the ceiling when working at height.

Material movement:

  • Don’t Rush – Moving materials in a hurry may cause more accidents to occur.
  • Don’t Overload – Operatives were told not overload equipment when moving materials, as this may cause material to fall and may lead to an accident.
  • Secure the Load – Any loose materials were to be tied down to prevent any falling load from causing an accident.
  • Share the Load – Workers were told to ask for help when needed.

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