How to Use Social Influence to Promote Workplace Safety

Warehouse Workers
June 03, 2020

One of the hottest topics today in safety is technology.

I’m sure you heard about the use of software, drones, wearables, big data analytics, artificial intelligence, sensors, the IoT, etc. to improve safety. Browse through our blog homepage and you will find many posts on the topic.

But there is an irony: while the use of EHS technology is growing, especially with Industry 4.0 and the era of the smart factory, there is a risk that EHS managers rely too much on it and forget about the human aspect.

There’s no doubt that technology helps, and it makes a big difference. But ultimately safety is about humans. And humans are complex, with a host of cognitive biases, irrationalities, and emotional intricacies.

Humans are also social beings by nature. This contributes to some cognitive biases also (e.g. groupthink, confirmation bias, in-group favoritism).

But the social nature of humans can also have a positive effect: EHS managers can use it to encourage safe behaviors and promote safety.

The January 2020 edition of Professional Safety Journal (PSJ) includes an article by authors E. Scott Geller and Krista S. Geller on how to apply social influence principles.

The article describes four fundamental social principles that EHS managers can apply. Let’s take a look at them.

The Principle of Consistency

People have a need to display consistent behavior and have alignment between feelings, thoughts and actions. This is something that can be leveraged for better safety performance.

One way to use the consistency principle is through “social labeling” where people tend to live up to the labels assigned to them. For example, drivers are more likely to engage in safe driving if they are labeled as “safe drivers”. People want to appear consistent.

Another use of the consistency principle is to challenge workers to publicly commit to upholding a safe behavior, like always wearing the proper PPE. This will encourage them to consistently engage in safe behavior to avoid being accused of hypocrisy.

The Reciprocity Principle

If you are nice to someone, there’s a greater chance that the person will also be nice towards you. That’s reciprocity, which is similar to the Golden Rule principle.

In the context of occupational safety, reciprocity means that safety leaders should go out of their way for another person’s safety. When people actively care for someone else’s safety, they set the stage for the reciprocity principle, i.e. they increase the likelihood that the recipients of safety-related caring will actively care for the safety of someone else, the article says.

For example, the authors suggest that if someone thanks you for performing a safe behavior, don’t simply respond with “You’re welcome”. Instead, say something like “You’re welcome, I know you would do the same for me.” This type of reply increases the likelihood of more “pay-it-forward safety-related behavior.”

The Authority Principle

The article says that from childhood through adulthood, we learn to follow legitimate authority.

The use of the authority principle is tricky because people can use authority both positively and negatively. For example, if someone with authority asks workers to take a risk, they might comply because if something goes wrong, it will not be their fault. They can blame the person who told them to take the risk.

Safety leaders should not demand that workers follow orders blindly if safety is at risk. For instance, consider giving workers stop work authority. Instead, they should use their authority to lead by example by following safety precautions, wearing the appropriate PPE, and thanking workers for doing the same. People are more inclined to adopt the behaviors of authority figures.

The Scarcity Principle

People place a higher value on things that are scarce or perceived as scarce, like tickets to an event that is almost sold-out or a product that is almost out-of-stock.

According to the authors, when individuality or the perception of personal control is made scarce through top-down control, some people may exhibit the wrong behaviors. Workers may ignore safety practices imposed by management because doing so is their only way of asserting some sense of individuality or having personal choice or freedom.

When people perceive their work culture as restrictive, they may try to “beat the system”, the article says. But with a more interdependent safety culture, the adoption of safe behaviors is seen as more of a personal choice rather than as a directive. According to the scarcity principle, true commitment and long-term engagement for safety cannot be dictated.

Remember these social influence principles next time you try to promote safe behaviors and strengthen the safety culture.

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Jean-Grégoire Manoukian

Content Thought Leader - Wolters Kluwer | Enablon