We all have habits. It might be drinking a cup of coffee in the morning, or looking both ways before you cross the street. These activities become so repetitive that we stop thinking about what we’re doing – they become automatic. Habits can be a useful way to save energy when making routine and frequent decisions.
Not all habits, however, are good. Sometimes our bad habits have the potential to cause harm to ourselves or to those around us. This can be especially dangerous when working in risky jobs or environments. For example, a homecare worker may become too comfortable entering the same home every day, and that familiarity may cause them to let their guard down and not recognize potential dangers.
The outcomes of habits are often compounding and have strong ripple effects. For example, in the case of a habit like smoking, the longer you smoke the greater chance you will face increased health problems. Those health problems will compound and the ripple effect may negatively impact your work or the health of those around you. This works both ways, however. Imagine the positive effects if you replaced smoking with running?
Positive workplace safety habits result in safer workplaces. The result is reduced frequency and severity of safety incidents which ripples into increased worker happiness, improved productivity, happier customers, increased profitability and more.
Most habits form over a long period of time without us realizing. In fact, habits are so automatic we may not even realize them as habits. Therefore, awareness is the first step in building or breaking habits.
Start by building an inventory of your employees’ workplace safety habits. Work with your employees to gather and record existing positive and negative safety habits. Are your employees remembering to use their safety equipment? Are they regularly checking in with their supervisors while working remotely? Are they routinely reporting safety incidents or near misses?
In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg describes how all habits are composed of a three-step loop: cue, routine and reward. A cue tells our brains to go into automatic mode and perform the habit or routine (it could be physical but it might also be emotional or mental). This is capped off with a reward that reinforces the link between the cue and routine. Waking up is the cue that leads to drinking coffee, and the reward from caffeine helps reinforce this relationship. That reinforcement builds strong bonds between cue and routine, and we start to anticipate and crave the habit.
Duhigg cautions that changing a habit can be difficult. Strategies such as ‘going cold turkey’ typically result in failure. The key is to identify the components in the habit loop (cue, routine, reward) and decide which components need reinforcing, changing or replacing.
One of the biggest predictors of safety is whether people are truly committed. Do they have the willpower to change or build new safety habits? At the core of willpower is the ability to resist short-term temptations and desires in order to achieve long-term goals.
The key to building willpower is to set realistic and achievable long-term goals. In some cases, it’s a requirement to impose safety regulations on employees. However, providing employees with the ability to provide input into their goals will result in greater support and buy-in.
Once you understand your safety habits and their components, the easiest component to change is the routine.
For example, if your company has remote workers who are struggling with charging their wearable panic buttons (leaving them unprotected while working), instead of trying to create an entirely new habit, try to adapt an existing one. In this case, workers may have an existing habit of charging their phones before going to sleep. A simple addition to this routine would be to introduce and promote the charging their wearable panic button to that routine.
Another option is to develop cues to remind people of desired safety routines. For example, visitors at construction sites may benefit from signage reminding them of the safety rules of the site while employees working on high-rise buildings might have more success using a sign asking workers to report any safety concerns they see or experience during their shift.
The final lever of building strong safety habits is to use rewards to reinforce safety habits. Consider using financial incentives, prizes or bonuses. Be careful of using rewards linked to counting safety incidents as this may result in employees opting not to report. However, safety rewards should not be used as a substitute for proper safety training. Consider using safety awards to motivate employees.
Another tool to build willpower and effectively build strong safety habits is to focus on repetition. Building new habits won’t happen overnight. Research shows that building a habit can take anywhere between 20-60 days. A critical aspect of building a habit is to not break the chain of the habit during the early days of habit forming. Consider using cues such as reminders, checklists or even safety drills to develop routines. One useful cue often deployed in manufacturing environments are signs that proclaim ‘It’s been 5 days since our last safety incident.’
Building strong workplace safety habits is not an individual pursuit. We all struggle with willpower. Creating a peer support community can be a powerful method for building safety habits. These groups provide a space to share stories, build accountability and encourage each other to work through the challenges of forming new habits.
The goal of building strong safety habits is to make safety easy. Automatic, even.
Evaluating your employees’ existing safety habits and developing action-focused plans for improving habits is critical to your organization’s overall health. Technology also has a role to play. For example, instead of using manual call-and-response check ins which require employees and supervisors to remember to periodically call each other, consider using a safety app like SolusGuard which includes automated check ins and reminders. By making safety easy you increase the chance of building positive safety habits.
SolusGuard delivers a suite of workforce safety and lone worker protection solutions to help keep your employees safe and your business compliant. We work with you to create customized security plans that minimize risk for your workers and your business. Our suite of solutions includes a custom-designed wearable panic button; employee check in/out software; customizable alert monitoring; and a satellite extender. SolusGuard is an excellent solution for any business with lone workers, or for which worker safety is a concern, such as—home care, mental health and addictions, property management, inspection and compliance, security and transportation.