Unleash the potential of your employees to prevent risky behaviour

Aug 11, 2014

Preventing injuriesYour safe employees may be your best ally in preventing risky behaviour among co-workers who are impervious to traditional injury prevention approaches, suggests research conducted by the Center for Health and Safety Culture at Montana State University's Western Transportation Institute.

In collaboration with WSPS and the Motor Vehicle Safety Action Committee 1, researchers tested the possibility of engaging workplace bystanders in preventing risky behaviour. Jay Otto, research scientist and manager of the Center for Health and Safety Culture, explains that "traditionally we've focused on individuals and how to get them to not do something. With this project we focused on a large audience and how to get them to do something, which was to speak up in an effort to prevent a small group from engaging in risky behaviour. That's a big shift."

The risky behaviour involved operating a motor vehicle unsafely. However, Jay Otto and Kiran Kapoor, WSPS' director, business and market strategy, believe the approach they tested could be applied to any health and safety issue in which most people recognize the need to act safely but a smaller group don't.

"The positive community norms approach used in this research has been successfully used to create social impact and change behaviour," says Kapoor, "and it can apply to health and safety prevention as well. Shifting culture takes time, but it starts with understanding the values, attitudes and beliefs (norms) of the community or group where you are trying to affect change. This creates a baseline for you to measure the progress of your work (in this case a campaign) over time."

Why motor vehicle safety

The Motor Vehicle Safety Action Committee wanted to find a new approach to preventing motor vehicle incidents because

  • they account for more than 30% of all Ontario worker fatalities, or 45% when powered industrial vehicles or powered mobile industrial equipment are included
  • many crashes involve impaired or aggressive driving, being distracted or fatigued while driving, and speeding
  • most drivers don't engage in risky behaviour. Instead, only a small number of individuals are causing significant harm, and they seem unaffected by traffic safety campaigns.

The process to create a "Courageous Voices, Create Safe Roads" campaign involved the following steps:

  1. Conduct workplace surveys to measure positive norms regarding engaging bystanders in reducing motor vehicle incidents. The responses helped researchers understand the beliefs and behaviours of workers and supervisors
  2. Create messages based on survey responses that reflected these norms. For example: 95% of Company Y employees disapprove of unsafe driving behaviours; 79% believe they should try to prevent a co-worker or supervisor from driving unsafely; 56% would try to prevent unsafe driving
  3. Conduct a pilot study to assess the impact of these messages on bystanders' behaviour
  4. Create posters to communicate the messages in participating workplaces
  5. Repeat the workplace surveys to measure awareness of the messages and determine if people would be more likely to intervene

What we can take away from the research results

Here's what we learned from the research:

  • It is possible to engage employees in preventing others from behaving unsafely. "An increase in bystander engagement means that maybe we don't have to come in with a scarier story or a bigger hammer to get that last small group to change its unsafe behaviour," says Otto.
  • Workplace norms can encourage bystanders to promote safe behaviour. In this instance, the likelihood of someone trying to stop a co-worker from, say, texting while driving, was strongly associated with the person's perception of what most people in their workplace would do.
  • It doesn't require a major shift in thinking. "The vast majority of participants already felt that they should intervene," says Otto, "so it was more an issue of giving them permission to do it, and providing simple examples of what it would look like."
  • It complements what workplaces are already doing Building on existing norms of behaviour to engage bystanders enhances rather than replaces existing safety efforts.
  • Intervening is not complicated. "It can be a very simple act," says Otto, "such as 'Hey, you need to…' or 'Why don't you…'"

What's next

WSPS will make these resources available on our website:

  • a white paper on the project
  • downloadable versions of the posters used to promote safe driving behaviour, including an interactive poster tool and guidance on how to engage your workplace in a campaign.

Watch for more on these resources in an upcoming issue of WSPS Network News.

1 The Motor Vehicle Safety Action Committee (MVSAC) is a stakeholder group led by Workplace Safety & Prevention Services. MVSAC comprises representatives from industry, government, and community organizations.