The Pros and Cons of “Nudging” People Toward Safer Choices
By Nathan Sanicharane

in the January issue discussed noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) and its impact on an individual’s quality of life. How do we avoid the risk of developing such life-changing conditions? With the advent of the Fitbit and other such advances in monitoring devices, it’s easy to assume that all we have to do is strap on another device to tell us that we’re out of harm’s way or that we’re not at risk of developing something terrible in 10 years’ time. But that’s only part of the solution. Yes, smart devices have their place, and we’ll see more in the future, ever growing in sophistication. But what all these aids do is help us change our behavior over the long term, and for the better.
The Art of the Nudge
“It’s all about changing behaviors”—so said many of the speakers at the 2016 Insurance Internet of Things (IoT) Conference in London, England. This was said in the context of the growing use of connected sensors such as telematics in automobiles and fitness bands to monitor people’s activity. The research firm Gartner went as far as to say in its 2015 top strategic (digital) predictions that by 2018, two million employees will be required to wear health and fitness tracking devices as a condition of employment.
The proposition is this: if you can “nudge” a change in people’s behavior—for example, to drive more carefully or be more active—there is potential for better outcomes and huge financial savings, not least on claims through reductions in the incidence of accidents, injuries, and illnesses, with the metaphorical carrot being a lower insurance premium.
So why do people take risks? We often know what the risks are, but we may also know that some of the effects will be experienced far in the future. Exposure to noise and dust can have a long latency leading to chronic conditions; however, unlike smoking or exposure to asbestos, whose hazards are widely recognized, we may not appreciate the link between noise exposure and hearing loss or, in the case of unseen toxic dusts, the potential for life-threatening respiratory diseases. Sometimes we make rational calculations of the risk versus the perceived benefit; other times we behave “on auto pilot” or in response to peer pressure. Not least, we often have a strong basic motivation to take shortcuts—in this regard, we humans are very adaptable and creative!
Natural instincts like fight or flight, learned behaviors, social norms, desires for rewards, even domestic problems or a plain old bad day can also influence our behavior. In the workplace, organizational values, the “how we do things around here” safety culture, management commitment (production versus safety), all conspire to shape our behaviors. Other factors also come into play such as mutual trust, communication, supervision, real-world workable solutions, and risk perception. Safe behavior is often seen as something for front-line workers, but it is heavily influenced by wider organization and management behavior at all levels from the very top down.
Measuring Behaviors and Sharing Results
Much store is being put in behavioral safety as a solution, but there is no reason to doubt that the principals apply equally to health exposures. So what is behavioral safety? It can be defined as an action by an individual that is observable by others. It works by deciding what behaviors you wish to change, observing people and measuring what they do, and sharing the results with them. Aiming higher as an objective encourages people to change their behavior using the same measures to report back, leading to a cycle of continuous improvement.
The advantages are a reduction in accidents and illness and a significant improvement in communication and employee engagement, even improved morale, which could lead to better productivity. The disadvantages are that it may draw attention and resources away from safety-critical issues. Equally it can be perceived as shifting the onus away from management onto the behavior of individual employees. Care is needed here. The law of unexpected consequences may also mean that incentives designed to encourage improvement—for example, offering bonuses for “zero injuries”—may result in the underreporting of accidents and incidents, especially less obvious injury and ill health.
But wishing to focus on the positives, here are some success stories from the Health & Safety Executive in the U.K. (equivalent to OSHA). A manufacturing company with 1,400 staff introduced a behavioral safety program and gained:
  • improved productivity, days lost to injury per year dropping from 550 to 301 in four years
  • improved public image, with managers presenting their successes at major conferences
  • staff development including better communication, IT skills, and greater confidence
Similarly, a behavioral safety program at a petrochemicals plant brought about:
  • a savings of over $300K per year through early detection and repair of leaks
  • reduced risk of chemical exposures to workers and the environment
  • a 32 percent reduction in insurance premiums
  • major reductions in operating costs as workers became more confident about identifying and dealing with problems
The next article will consider how worker risk is dealt with from an organizational perspective.

NATHAN SANICHARANE, the global marketing manager at Casella, has 10 years' experience in the heath and safety industry and is committed to promoting technology to protect worker health. He can be contacted at

Behavioral Change