Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A nudge to reduce injuries at work

By Pelle Guldborg Hansen & Andreas Maaløe Jespersen

"It's just easier to do it yourself, rather than asking and then waiting for somebody to come and help." We all know this way of reasoning. However, it may easily become a huge problem and a big expense at work, if a helping hand is what ultimately stands between another day at work and a long term working injury.

This is especially true if you are working in a team, but fail to call upon a helping hand when handling heavy objects and other physically taxing working tasks. In such situations, 'just doing it yourself' may lead to the repetition of unhealthy movements or just that one wrong lift that your back will regret for months to come.

It is not just that many workplaces are abundant with these kinds of hidden-risk tasks - i.e. tasks where the individual worker may obviously succeed in performing the task on her own, but a collective effort relieves long term, yet often, invisible consequences or seriously reduce the invisible risk of a sudden injury. It also seems reasonable to suspect that the problem may be reinforced by several external factors, such as norms of masculinity or self-reliance, or if the working team suffers from a low level of social capital.

So how do we deal with hidden-risk tasks?
One obvious "solution" is dealing with the problem by ignoring it and thereby failing to end up in the important conversation were we realize the hidden nature of the problem as a group or team. If this is the case, the hidden-risk problem is not only maintained in our working-environment. Its consequences may also persist to damage the team's social capital by increasing the frequency of replacements, drain the budget with temporaries, and causing the team to work faster, harder and at higher risk when being low on staff.

Even when we do succeed in establishing a mutual recognition of hidden-risk problems, my experience is that we often fail to take appropriate measures to deal with them. We approach problems of hidden-risk by targeting our social-norms or a team's social capital in the hope that the effect will then spill-over in the right situation.

At its worst this means talking about what we "ought to do" or "ought to have done" and possibly ending up playing the blame game. At its best it means building up the team's social capital and then crossing fingers hoping that this will kick in at just the right moment - i.e. when you need that helping hand, although you could have done it by yourself.

A nudge to reduce injuries at work
However, the other day when giving a talk at OKÆ, Pelle was presented with a good example of how to use nudging to deal with the problem of hidden-risk. In the municipality's big central kitchen OKÆ Foodservice a poster displays how many days have passed since the last working injury occurred. In fact, we've since then been told that this nudge has been used at factories since the '50ties! (please comment if you know anything about this).

This poster neither changes the options available to the staff, nor the structure of incentives embedded in their working environment. Thus, it qualifies as a nudge. Yet, I think it very likely that it may help reduce work injuries related to hidden-risk problems.

For one, as you can see, the chosen design requires the poster to be updated every day with a marker. Thus it functions as a continuous reminder. Everyday, at least one person has to think about the risk of injuries at work.

Second, it may function as a "catcher". That is, on the same line as the Fly in the Urinal and calorie labels on menus it may catch the attention of those working in a hidden-risk environment (though we think the there's some space for improving the chosen design).

Third, the poster re-frames the hidden-risk problems likely to cause injuries at work, so that from being a theme of individual consideration, responsibility and consequence, hidden-risk problems in the working environment become a collective consideration, responsibility and problem. Ideally this means that you will no longer need to ask for that helping hand, when you could do it on your own. Instead others will be on the look-out to prevent those hidden-risks from materializing. That is, it may help to promote ground-floor team-work as a means to avoid situations of risk by creating a new frame of reference that emphasizes the collective aspect of the possible consequences and creating a healthy competition where the team competes against itself.

A word of caution
That said, a word of caution is also needed. The poster-nudge is a social nudge and as such it presents the usual dangers of invoking social dynamics as part of behavioral interventions.

While the poster may help avoid hidden-risk problems at work, it may also lead to some negative and unintended effects. Might workers for instance come to hide their work-injuries from co-workers and employers in order not to ruin the record?

Of course, this is one of those instances where the role of social capital becomes important. Yet, social capital may even worsen such unintended effects, if nudging is combined with other measures.

Why? Injuries will always happen, but just as hidden-risks, they may not be observable. The poster-system doesn't allow for that "margin of error" to save "the record". This means that if e.g. one tries to combine this nudge with a premium for achieving a particular record - e.g. 100 days - one may ultimately not only reinforce the unintended effect by having workers hide their injuries to save "the record". They will also have a strong reason to hide the injury in order to save the team's premium - a reason that may indeed be conjectured to be reinforced by higher levels of social capital within the team.

Unfortunately, the premium combination has been chosen at Foodservice - it's just so natural for us to reward behavior, even when we only need a nudge.

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