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Safety is all in the mind

AGENDA - Forget the likes of Paul McKenna. Think subliminal safety messaging by pictures.The Trojan Horse Messaging project is the latest Health and Safety Executive idea to be trialled on site to reduce deaths and accidents. So how does it work? Lisa Gla

CONSTRUCTION workers face a blizzard of safety information. So much, in fact, that it can leave them overwhelmed and indifferent to the dangers of life on site. But a new technique being trialled by the HSE aims to get inside their minds and train operatives to act safely without them even realising it.

The Trojan Horse Messaging initiative uses subliminal images to display the right and wrong way to carry out work on site. Instead of using notice boards, which are often overlooked or do not register with workers, the scheme takes safety advice to where it is needed - to the actual tools, product and kit used on a daily basis.

It might just seem like a set of stickers on equipment, but the underlying subliminal safety messaging can have a very powerful effect, its proponents claim.

Psychologists believe that behaviour can be strongly influenced by appealing to the unconscious mind with words and images. Their research has shown that people respond to subliminal messages even though they are not aware of having taken them on board.

The Trojan Horse messaging project, led by the Steel Construction Institute and sponsored by the HSE, addressed four main site hazards: lifting, unloading, noise and slinging.

Images of how to carry out this work correctly and safely were put directly onto the equipment used. A second image was placed alongside it to show workers how not to do it.

Project technical officer for the scheme HSE specialist inspector Paul Thomas said: 'Every type of industry could benefit from this technique. Safety messages are strategically put in place at the point of work for a limited per iod of time.'

Several main contractors took part in the trial - Multiplex, Skanska, Taylor Woodrow, Mace and Bovis Lend Lease - as well as receiving backing from partners the University of Loughborough and a number of trade associations.

The motivation behind the scheme was to change behaviour and alter attitudes towards safety on site.

Academics at the University of Loughborough assessed workers before and after the images were put on equipment and discovered site staff were taking the safety message on board.

Contractors were also impressed by the scheme, which will give them a new weapon in the fight to improve safety. One major contractor safety director said: 'It seems a very effective way of getting the safety message across because it's not too 'in your face'. You can see operatives switch off sometimes when they have safety inductions or toolbox talks so this is a way of ramming home the message without them getting bored of it, because they don't really know its happening.'

The idea for subliminal messaging on site was first mooted in 2003 when research into the Trojan Horse technique started. The 15-month programme stemmed from the initiative that tackles the industry's most common killer - falls from height.

The final report into the research concluded that best practice messages could be 'effectively delivered to small and medium-sized companies and individual decision-makers by using merchant messages.'

Phase two concluded in July this year and the now backers are hoping to roll the scheme out across the industry. The Health and Safety Commission's Margaret Burns said: 'This is another good example of successful partnership working within the construction industry. I am confident this will lead to real benefits in reducing risks on construction sites.'

The Steel Construction Institute said awareness of safety messages increased after repeated exposure to the images, which has had a positive impact on workers' behaviour. One site worker said: 'We found them eyecatching because they weren't on the notice board, which we just tend to walk by. It made us more aware.'

Cynics will argue that the success of the scheme was due to the fact that tests were carried out on large sites, which are known to have generally better safety standards than smaller jobs.

But those involved in the scheme say one of its appeals is its potential application across the whole industry.

Taylor Woodrow's head of health and safety Steve Derbyshire said: 'We became involved in the scheme because it has an industry-wide inf luence, not dependent on major contractors to deliver. It reaches the smaller enterprises.'

Earlier this year HSE chief inspector of construction Stephen Williams outlined the HSE's plans to concentrate on smaller firms. He said: 'SMEs and the selfemployed are more localised and they are the ones the HSE will be targeting.'

Perhaps this is one initiative that will enable safety messages to trickle down from the top.

Skanska got involved in the Trojan Horse scheme after learning of the initial research, impressed by its fresh approach to the safety issue.

Skanska UK assurance director Benjamin Legg said: 'Improving health and safety is top of everyone's agenda. It's about doing it the right way and inf luencing the guys on the front line. The research has shown you don't need a bureaucratic, technical system to make the improvement on site.'

With the increasing number of foreign workers on site due to skills shortages and the opening-up of Eastern Europe, the use of images will make it easier to get safety messages across because it helps overcome the language barrier.

SCI spokeswoman Clare Convy said: 'The images were designed to make safety messages clear and to enable site workers to understand them regardless of their native language.'

The use of images reduces the need to read literature and therefore cuts down on the amount of time spent on training. Another bonus for main contractors and SME's is that the subliminal images are part of everyday work and do not use up training time.

Construction saw fatalities hit a record low in July when the HSE published a figure of 59 for 2005-2006.

Despite the improvement it still shows there is more to be done.

Contractors and site workers are all aware they need to work safely but the current problem is how many actually take not ice of every training poster on site.

As one Taylor Woodrow site worker said: 'We were impressed with the different approach. We knew how we should handle the blocks but it was a timely reminder to do it.'

So what does the future hold for the Trojan Horse Messaging technique? Mr Legg said: 'What we will look at now is how we can make it work. We have got to keep it in the essence that it's meant - clear, concise and effective at the point of work.'

A research paper into the study will be published on October 13 and steps will then be taken to get the industry further on board.

Subliminal messaging could then become standard across the industry as employers strive to get inside the minds of construction workers to reach the ultimate goal of zero accidents on site.