We’ve all heard this on a sunny holiday. ‘I don’t need any sun cream. Stop fussing. I’m alright without.’ You may’ve thought about finishing the joke yourself by replying, ‘well done you. you’re harder than the sun’. Cut to a few hours later and you’ll see that same person, burnt to a crisp, hiding their discomfort but still not finding the shade.

And that sums up some people’s approach to health and safety quite well. We know what we’re supposed to do. People can come up and tell us we need to do something to stay safe. We can even agree with them. But then we’ll act in a risky way.

The approach generally taken by the health and safety industry might not be the best one in practice, either. When they talk between themselves, they’re not always explicit or transparent so may be forgetting the point of their work. They usually talk of ‘risk management and compliance’ rather than ‘the stuff we do to stop construction workers dying’. And they often make ‘behavioural frameworks’ based on the misguided belief that people very much care about their safety before all else. Their language and tools tend to lean heavily on fear, judgement and punishment too. All using the assumption that there must be something wrong with people if they’re not following the safe working processes properly.

But we in behavioural science know there’s only one thing “wrong” with people – the fact that they’re people – and not robots. They’re never going to fit the current mould health and safety professionals have laid out to them so we need to find ways to work with the understanding of human behaviour rather than against it. Our first step is to understand why we might not be paying enough attention to the ways of working that might (actually) kill us.

Our default is to see safety and speed as a trade-off
It makes evolutionary sense to sometimes pick a risky option. You’ll get from A to B quicker by adding a calculated risk in your route. Much like crossing the road on green rather than waiting for red. You might even get a ping of neuro-chemicals rewarding you for your risky choice. A literal bio-incentive that works to double your feeling like the risky choice was right.

That leads us to be overconfident in our safety
Years of working and being relatively safe teaches us that these small trade-offs are fine. That pushes our dial to accepting more and more risky behaviour. Take rail track workers. You might see them walking across railway lines. Stepping directly on the metal lines. As a layperson your heart probably races just thinking about that and even if someone told you to do it and it was completely safe, you’ll probably be hesitant. As an experienced track worker, you’d probably not even flinch.

Our work contains a big ‘but’ after the word safety
The culture of work isn’t well suited to be safe. Scratching the surface there are so many hidden ‘but’s behind the phrase ‘work safely’. Work safely but get your work done on time. Work safely but don’t hassle me about it. Work safely but don’t be a wuss about it. All strike up cultural and business problems themselves to getting work done safely.

Now we understand a bit more, we can work to lessen some of these issues:

Create a work culture where it’s ok to care
If that’s the goal, there are many small behaviours that could get us towards it. You could try putting the most junior staff member (and therefore the most like a layperson) in charge of spotting safety issues and calling them out. You could add a safety checklist to their role much like a co-pilot or surgical nurse to get them comfortable with calling out unsafe behaviours. ‘I’m not asking, it’s the checklist’.

Campaigns should focus on the emotional benefit of safety, them and their colleagues seeing their family again, and should live on the equipment that keeps them safe. Like pictures tucked into hardhats. It’s more an issue of when the message is seen rather than what the message is.

Make people feel more fragile
Speaking of hardhats. There’s a sort of paradoxical nature to wearing safety equipment. The more you wear, the more risks you take and the less safe you are. But we could address this by making safety equipment feel less safe. Printing skeleton hands onto safety gloves to remind people their fragile hands are in there. Or making steel toe cap boots see-through for the same reason. This fragility could be psycho-biological too. Like trying to lower testosterone (which is linked to risky behaviour) by painting common room areas pink. The calming effect of pink lowers testosterone. Or maybe offering mindfulness minutes before shifts. Getting people into a slower and therefore safer state.

Make safety briefings work harder
Now people are more calm. They could include some tactics to make them more safety focused. Using state-dependent recall theory we could make sure the safety briefing and the place where the work is taking place is the same. Just to aid the recall of information. We could also put a devil’s advocate in place, whose job it is to challenge the briefing itself and add comment on anything overlooked.

Overall, the challenge of health and safety isn’t about barking or blaming people into compliance. It’s about looking at the social and personal reasons people may not always be safe and working to create small, psychologically sound, behaviours that keep everyone safe (from death!).