Innovative communication: Levelling the playing field between health and safety
By Dr Jenny Lunt
Despite our best intentions, health remains the poor relative of safety – as Kate Morris’ article on occupational health for SHP Online testifies.
Even with the huge amount of attention and action heralded by Dame Carol Black’s (2008) report on the Health Working Age population, health is still neglected where it counts; at the operational front line – with construction being a typical example.
So why does safety eclipse health?
One possible reason is the perception of risk and its effect on motivation . I’ll continue Kate’s example of dust on construction sites to illustrate.
Silica is a common constituent of dust on construction sites, and repeated exposure over time can cause debilitating lung cancer and silicosis. Yet, for a construction worker dealing with the pressures of the moment, these potential consequences are a long-way off.
Suppose they use a power tool to polish concrete without wearing a mask. In the short-term, their behaviour doesn’t appear to cause any harm, compared with a stack of bricks teetering on the edge of some scaffolding. Dust is a much less obvious, less tangible risk.
However, should that construction worker eventually get silicosis further down the line, after working on many different sites over the course of their career, it would be impossible to hold any one boss to account.
It is precisely these risk attributes that explain why it’s so hard to motivate employers and employees on health:
- long latency
- causal ambiguity*
- imperceptibility of hazards and the knock-on effects these have
- knowledge of the link between exposure and harm
*Especially where psychosocial hazards are involved, as in the case of work-relevant complaints such as stress and common mental health problems.
One way to level the playing field and distinguish safety from health, is to target these perceptual biases. By acting on decisions in a subtle way, risk communication using new technology can act as a ‘nudge’3. For example, without necessarily being aware of it, a ‘point-of-use’ animation showing how dust enters the lungs could nudge an operative into using a face mask without them consciously realising it.
To overcome risk underestimation because of long latency, you must bring the future into the present. Though this doesn’t mean time travel!
Rather, you could use an interactive presentation (like Prezi) to walk your audience through a patient’s journey. It could describe the impact of symptoms as they unfold, on emotions and on work and home life. It could also powerfully evoke the consequences of gambling with seemingly innocuous health risks like construction dust.
Similarly, taking your organisation’s leaders rapidly through the consequences of neglecting staff welfare, and the effect that has on customer satisfaction and reputation, could drive health messages home at senior level.
No doubt, Sports Direct shareholders may have welcomed such a crystal ball.
You could also host workshops about the ‘domino effect’ of successive decisions on team and organisational health, something that always resonates well with our clients, to provide a collective way of getting teams to think ahead. Similarly, employee survey data, stress surveys and aggregate health surveillance findings, all offer early warnings that your company can use to take evasive action.
Interactive video tours are another way to make health risks more salient and front-of-mind. You could, for example, film dusts or paint spray against a black drop to spell out the benefits of unused local exhaust ventilation in removing inhaled health hazards.
At Tribe, we’ve successfully used 360 degree workplace ‘walk-through’ tours with contextual videos, to explore the hidden health risks in our clients’ work environments. These work very much like Google’s Street View, but on your site, in surroundings familiar to your staff.
For example, a 360 degree tour might prompt a caterer think more carefully about how the location of flour bags, ease of access to associated controls, and level of baking activity affects the amount and flow of airborne flour particles. As well as being highly flammable, flour has known asthmagenic properties.
Real-time infographics and images that show how vulnerability to health hazards covaries with behaviour could also encourage stronger interest in health risks. Similarly, personal testimonies from sufferers of occupational disease, as well as survivors of health challenges, also foster engagement.
We’ve found that all these tools help raise awareness of risk, and correct perceptual bias at the same time, when deployed within the right communication strategy.
The case for standardisation
This article isn’t meant to be an exhaustive account of the techniques you could use. Instead, I’m making the case that targeting communication techniques to these biases could prove to be a powerful way of overcoming any ‘not my responsibility’ or ‘too difficult’ knee-jerk reactions by employers and workers alike.
Targeted risk communication shouldn’t be regarded as a panacea for putting the ‘H’ back into health and safety. This still requires an approach that not only motivates, but translates motivation into sustained improvements. And none of that can happen without first convincing employers of investing in health in the first place via the business, moral and legal case.
For health, the moral case seems easier to make. Any self-respecting business should understand that how they treat staff will reflect in how their customers are treated.
The business case is less easy; return-on-investment has proved even harder to establish than that for safety. That has been complicated by wide variations in what health issues actually are (e.g. occupational disease, stress, noise, fatigue), approaches used, and in measurement.
If we’re to overcome this problem, then organisations must agree standards on how health issues are measured and progress evaluated. Only greater consistency in measurement across organisations, nationally and internationally, will pave the way for a more reliable calculation of ROI.
Together, greater standardisation in the measurement of health as an enabler, and targeted communication according to the motivational biases that differentiate health from safety, could provide an as yet under-utilised and much needed way of levelling the playing field between health and safety.
- Black, C. (2008). Working for a Healthier Tomorrow. London:TSO
- Hopkinson, Fox & Lunt (2015). Development of the Health Risk Management Maturity (HeRMINN) as a Performance Leading Indicator in the Construction Sector. HSE Research Report RR0145 \
- Lunt & Staves (2011). Nudge Nudge, Think Think. Safety and Health Practitioner http://shp.shpo.portal.cmpi.net/features-content/full/cpd-article-nudge-nudge-think-think
Dr Jenny Lunt is an associate consultant at Tribe Culture Change and managing director at J. Lunt Associates. She specialises in Occupational Health and Organisational Psychology.
Tribe Culture Change formed in 2016 when Hill Solomon, the creative communications company, merged with culture change experts JOMC following a successful 10-year partnership. Their vision, to make a difference globally, uses a unique combination of art and science to create ‘cultures of together’.
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