Improving Workers’ Decision-Making
The OEHS Implications of Cognitive and Behavioral Psychology
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Learning about how people think and process information helps OEHS professionals adjust their programs and messaging to make the most significant impact. For instance, if you understand that attention span is limited, you can make training sessions shorter and more focused to enhance participation and learning. In addition, knowing that most people are overworked and juggling multiple projects, you can schedule training to be offsite to limit distractions and help boost participants’ concentration and focus. By limiting the effects of cognitive load, you increase the chances that staff will better retain information for practical application.

The term “cognitive load” refers to the mental resources an individual can dedicate to a particular task. From an OEHS perspective, excessive cognitive load has obvious consequences that can not only impair workers’ ability to retain lessons from training but affect their judgment. Work task demands account for much of a worker’s cognitive load, but economic anxiety, seasonal pressure, and non-work-related stressors can increase loads beyond capacity. Add disruptions, interruptions, and multitasking, and employee cognitive performance will suffer.
Unfortunately, OEHS professionals don’t fully consider these confounding factors when planning programs or reviewing incidents. How can we expect employees to focus on training, identifying hazards, or performing their work safely if their attention is elsewhere?
This article draws from our experiences in various work environments to illustrate how ideas from psychology can help OEHS professionals understand workers’ behavior and improve their decision making. Our discussion is informed by cognitive psychology, which concerns how people think and process information, and by behavioral psychology, which is the study of how environment affects behavior. Cognitive and behavioral psychology go far beyond following the company health and safety rules and OSHA compliance regulations. They consider the individual employees and how they perform their jobs.
EXAMPLES OF PRACTICAL APPLICATION For the most part, unsafe work is relatively easy to identify because it quickly results in an injury. The question then becomes, why did the employee act in an unsafe manner? If employees have been properly trained or are experienced enough to know better, their behavior may be explained by cognitive overload. Another possibility is that their unsafe behavior was previously identified but not corrected.
An example can be found in the tree trimming industry. Employees who feed brush into a woodchipper are trained to stand to the right of the machine. As the chipper pulls the brush inward, the employee rolls to the right and walks away, leaving the hazard area in case any brush is kicked up or thrown out during the chipping process. Unfortunately, employees can become fixated on the brush feeding into the chipper and remain in the hazard zone. One explanation for this behavior is that the employee’s mind is not on their work. Another is that employees have done it before without being corrected and the behavior has become acceptable. OEHS professionals need to understand the reason for the behavior so they can take the appropriate corrective actions.
Occupational health hazards are usually more obscure than safety hazards.
Improper behavior on the work site is not always this easy to identify. Occupational health hazards are usually more obscure than safety hazards and diagnosing their impact can take years. Consider the example of two workers on a printing press who perform the same task but have different work practices or habits based on their training and prior work experience. The first employee uses computer-based applications, written operating procedures, and other information to evaluate ink transference on a printed page. The other worker, who is older and not as comfortable with newer technology, may bypass the engineering and administrative controls by getting close to the printing operations to visually evaluate ink flow and transfer on the paper. The second worker will therefore have a higher exposure to solvents and other chemicals used in the printing process, along with increased exposure to occupational noise. It may be years before any health effects from this behavior become apparent.
How can OEHS professionals identify hazards that may not be obvious? Industrial hygiene professionals are driven by their ability to recognize and anticipate health hazards before conducting an exposure assessment or recommending controls. Recommendations must consider the cognitive confounders and behaviors of workers. Management systems use plan-do-check-act (PDCA) models to evaluate and control risks, but for this to work correctly, professionals must adequately recognize and anticipate workplace hazards. Without assessing workers’ behaviors, the risk may be underestimated. Similarly, the effectiveness of controls can be diminished by employees’ cognitive limitations, which may result from distractions, being overloaded with too much information, or a need for more understanding of safety controls and how they reduce risk. Alternatively, workers may be under pressure to perform by making more units or working longer hours to meet seasonal variations. Working in stressful environments or under adverse conditions can lead to behavioral changes that affect health and safety.
In many work environments, conditions change daily. OEHS professionals must ensure that workers know about workplace changes and how they affect safety and health. For example, in a facility where chemicals are used to produce a product, is the work site re-evaluated when production increases due to additional customer orders? Slight process changes can amplify chemical emissions, and longer work hours will increase employee exposure. Are maintenance work and non-routine activities evaluated? Additionally, fugitive emissions may occur only sporadically and go undocumented. If employers require the work to be completed quickly, adding to workers’ stress, cognitive and behavioral psychology can play a role in how employees perform the work, which can impact exposures.
Changes in exposure are not limited to industrial work sites. Similar situations occur on construction sites where workers are periodically exposed to respirable crystalline silica from tuckpointing, abrasive blasting, cutting cinder blocks, sandblasting, and other tasks. Work practices can significantly affect exposures. While experienced staff will perform the work more quickly, they may implement work practices that increase exposures—for example, by bringing their face close to the work so they can be more precise. But a lack of work experience can also be problematic since workers will need more time to complete the work and may not effectively implement controls that reduce silica dust. Construction workers also need to know how to use respirators properly and when to replace filters. With robust training programs, employers can promote good work practices and the effective use of personal protective equipment. Evaluating cognitive skills or changes in behavior can help OEHS professionals make the proper determination about the level of protection needed.
Although initial evidence may show an operation to be safe, OEHS professionals need to dig deeper to verify our conclusions.
AUDITS AND INSPECTIONS Although experience should help workers identify hazards more quickly, we know from behavioral psychology that performing repetitive tasks can desensitize employees. OEHS professionals can become desensitized, too. Sometimes we can’t comprehend what is happening because we see it too often, or complacency affects the quality of our work site inspection, audit, or survey. What is equally worrying is that we may take information at face value without performing further research, which can result in undocumented exposures.
An IH survey of a machine shop conducted a few years ago illustrates the importance of verifying that our instincts are correct. At this shop, grinders were used to cut large stock, which resulted in exposure to smoke from a petroleum-based oil lubricant. The employer provided evidence that the oil did not contain benzene, but a follow-up inquiry with the product manufacturer revealed otherwise. Because the benzene content was less than 1 percent, it was not required to be reported on the safety data sheet. Monitoring of the workforce showed overexposure to benzene vapor based on the excessive frictional heating of the oil. The potential health concern was alleviated through collaboration with all stakeholders to gain a deeper understanding of the material and the work process. The lesson is that although initial evidence may show an operation to be safe, OEHS professionals need to dig deeper to verify our conclusions.
HAZARD RECOGNITION Slight changes in equipment operation or performance, worker behavior, or work processes can have consequences. Some OSHA standards note that whenever there is an increase or decrease in the workforce, change in equipment or process, or relocation, the exposure to the health hazard should be reevaluated to determine the new baseline. Furthermore, statistical applications should be used to validate that monitoring data are accurate and below relevant exposure guidelines.
Validation is essential for work tasks, operations, or processes that already have baseline exposures at or above established exposure guidelines. Installation of a local exhaust ventilation system should—but often doesn’t—trigger testing, maintenance, and re-evaluation to identify possible reductions in airflow or deviations from filter change-out schedules. Workers assume the mechanical ventilation system works appropriately based on past performance and visual evidence that contaminants are being exhausted from the work area. Similarly, OEHS professionals may incorrectly determine that the process is controlled without collecting air samples to evaluate worker exposure or without evaluating work practices to ensure the effective use of engineering and administrative controls.
AIHA is currently undertaking several initiatives intended to advance OEHS science and practice. One of these initiatives seeks to set expectations that OEHS professionals will routinely engage in activities and use available tools that improve the accuracy of their qualitative and quantitative exposure judgments. This initiative builds off studies showing that OEHS practitioners with little experience had more accurate exposure judgments than experienced professionals. A slower, more methodical mental processing of facts and better observation of work can lead to more accurate exposure risk predictions and better controls to protect workers. By taking the time to evaluate workplace exposures properly, experienced OEHS professionals can make more informed decisions.
LOOKING BEYOND TRADITIONAL EXPOSURES Those who understand human performance can evaluate work practices to determine when changes in processes or operations may occur. For example, new odors or smoke lingering in the air for long periods of time should be interpreted as indicators that the workplace has changed, and a new evaluation is needed.
When performing work site evaluations, OEHS professionals must consider multiple exposure routes such as skin absorption, contamination of food or beverage, respiratory concerns, and injection. Exposures may extend beyond the work environment if decontamination practices aren’t followed. Decontamination can involve keeping personal clothing separate from work clothing and requiring staff to shower before leaving work. OEHS professionals must consider these issues to protect workers and their families from harm.
A site audit of a work location for municipal workers revealed the importance of considering all factors related to exposure. During the audit, it was identified that workers housed their tools and equipment, changed their clothes, and ate in the basement of a facility that previously had a police department firing range. Despite remediation by a contractor, inorganic lead was found on all stored equipment and materials, other building surfaces, desks, kitchen appliances, inside the ventilation ducts for the building’s heating and cooling system, and even on the interior surfaces of work vehicles parked in the building garage. Taking the time to research the building and its previous uses allowed for the identification of potential exposures to the building tenants. It also demonstrated a need for quality control of the workmanship performed by the remediation contractor and evaluation of what would be considered acceptable contamination levels for clearance testing.
In another case, workers were removing the flooring of a historic building because of elemental mercury contamination. The remediation contractor had demonstrated similar experience in cleaning up mercury-contaminated work sites, but the crew provided for this project had no experience or training. Baseline biological monitoring results showed a higher mercury level in the workers’ bloodstream. An evaluation of the work site found that workers failed to wear the proper respiratory protection. The friction created by cutting the floorboards with a circular saw caused the mercury to vaporize inside the room. Exposure levels quickly elevated above an acceptable risk, and the work was terminated until modifications could be made to do the work safely. Eventually, a mechanical ventilation system was designed and installed to capture the mercury vapor. Implementing this control allowed the contractor to use filtered respirators instead of supplied-air respirators. When informed that mercury can remain on the skin even after washing with soap and water, the employer implemented an education program for workers on proper decontamination procedures using a different soap. Additionally, biological monitoring was upgraded, and a different type of saw was used to reduce friction when cutting the wood flooring. In retrospect, it was evident that the contractor had assumed the project was no different from other cleanup projects and was unaware of the hazards.
SEEING CLEARLY There are times when OEHS professionals investigate incidents and cannot identify a root cause beyond the employee’s actions. This issue was the subject of a presentation at a virtual safety symposium in 2017. Instead of jumping to the conclusion that the employee was negligent or purposefully incompliant, the presenter encouraged investigators to consider that the incident may result from poor decision-making based on risk perception and hazard recognition. The potential for an economic reward or benefit from an action can affect how workers perceive the situation and assess the risk.
OEHS professionals, supervisors, and managers should question how workers think and behave based on the work activity and work environment. We may not always see the impacts of changing processes, modifying work schedules, or personal issues. All these factors can affect employee decision-making. If we consider how cognitive and behavioral psychology can help address hazards and employee concerns, companies should see a better return on their investment through improved morale, productivity, and human performance.
BERNARD L. FONTAINE, JR., CIH, CSP, FAIHA, is a managing partner at The Windsor Consulting Group.
CARL SALL, CIH, CSP, is vice president for environment, health, and safety at Asplundh Tree Experts LLC in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, and a past chair of AIHA’s Leadership and Management Committee.
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