Thursday, August 8, 2019
Can the use of behavioral science insights be an effective way to improve program results?

While their use in some agencies is in its infancy, other agencies have been using behavioral science approaches for years but only recently have their use been noticed more publicly. A good example is a five-year project in the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) to reduce injuries and improve the health of workers in the mining industry.

Background.  Jobs in the mining industry have historically been ranked among the most dangerous occupations. According to the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), about 5,000 to 6,000 miners are injured each year at 13,000 mines across the country. Many more workers are exposed to hazards that can lead to lung disease, hearing loss, and other health conditions.

MSHA has put in place regulations reflecting best practices, new technologies, and personal protective equipment, such as respirators, which have been introduced by mining companies to improve the safety and health of the country’s more than 300,000 miners. However, workers can be reluctant to adopt these measures in the workplace.

Several years ago, behavioral scientists at the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s (NIOSH) Pittsburgh Mining Research Division -- a public health, not a regulatory agency -- set out to learn both organizational and mineworker barriers to implementing and adopting health and safety measures and interventions. The team, led by Dr. Emily Haas, applied behavioral science methods and theories to engage mining companies, managers, and employees to create a safety culture that would reduce health and safety risks in mines.  The project was a five-year effort, currently in its fifth year.

The researchers set out to find what would motivate companies and workers to change their policies, processes, and work practices. They started by surveying 2,700 mineworkers at 40 mines to understand how to measure safety culture in high-risk industries, like mining, and how to develop and implement industry-wide strategies to reduce accidents and injuries. A handful of companies volunteered to participate in the study.

What the Surveys Revealed. The surveys undertaken by NIOSH uncovered a number of unstated perceptions and actions by mining companies, frontline supervisors, and workers.  These provided a roadmap to a series of interventions that companies developed; and, in some cases, the researchers evaluated.

Traditionally, mining companies provide workers new technology, equipment, and descriptions of best practices to improve workplace safety, but not conduct any follow up on whether they were put to use. The challenge was - How can mining companies shift from their traditional corporate compliance approach, which focused on providing new equipment and announcing policy changes, vs. actually changing behaviors of supervisors and workers on the front line?

Previous studies had found that high-risk industry employees observe more than three unsafe acts a week on average – but only about 39 percent of workers said that they would intervene in hazardous situations they observed at work.  Why? Because “they felt their supervisor would not listen to them if they said something. . .”  So, while companies provided employees with policies, procedures and best practices designed to keep them safe at work, “in the actual workplace, an employee’s safety choices may be different from what is desired and expected.”

Bridging the Gap.  This gap between policy and practice highlighted the need to identify barriers in an organization’s safety climate.  The NIOSH behavioral science researchers tested various protective health and safety interventions such as reducing the bias towards the status quo, applying the harm reduction model, self-determination theory, and increasing employees’ perceptions of being empowered to speak out without retribution.

Some progressive mining companies adopted a “See something, say something” intervention and campaign to encourage workers to report unsafe conditions. However, research found that “Even though this slogan may be promoted on the job, employees’ perceptions of this initiative is unknown.” Companies may officially encourage their employees to speak up when equipment, machines or conditions are not safe. However, in practice, employees sometimes saw hazards or suffer what they believe to be minor injuries and did not tell their supervisors.

Based on the NIOSH scientists’ survey results and experimental tests, participating mining companies began to understand more clearly that solely relying on policy changes and technical fixes may be unpredictable (e.g., workers’ response to cameras embedded in safety helmets in order to monitor dust levels).  They better understood that there may be unintended consequences, and that being clear about perceived benefits and understanding barriers to adoption can affect how long will it take for workers to accept a new health or safety technique. Another challenge became: How do you instill confidence in workers to carry out a safety practice?

How Behavioral Science Helped.  NIOSH’s behavioral scientists helped the participating mining companies better understand the complicated interactions between regulations, the mining environment, the organizational culture, the relationships between worker-and-managers, and between managers-and-supervisors.  They studied the adoption of different approaches to implementing health or safety practices.  For example, Dr. Haas and her team identified ten behavioral factors that influenced workers’ tolerance for taking risks and the participating companies used these factors to develop their own risk tolerance training modules.

By better understanding the behavioral dimensions in the workplace, the participating companies were better able to deal with communicating the tensions between the emphasis of safety vs. production and increase consistency, for example, in safety messages from supervisors in the day vs. night shifts.  These included:

  • Improving engineering controls on dust, for example by ensuring miners used clothes cleaning technology throughout their shift and changed into clean clothes when leaving the work site.
  • Increasing worker autonomy by, for example, allowing workers some discretion in the types of safety glasses they wear.
  • Fixing safety issues in real time, on-site, by having supervisors “manage by walking around,” for example by showing new employees how to sweep a room without stirring up clouds of dust.

Did the Use of Behavioral Science Make a Difference? The NIOSH research partnership effort with mining companies was limited in scope.  It focused on 2,700 mineworkers at 40 mines, largely as a proof of concept. But participating companies saw a positive difference and there is some indications that lessons learned are being adopted more widely in the mining industry.

According to a narrative prepared for the Gears of Government President’s Award, the corporate manager of one participating company credits Dr. Haas and NIOSH’s research with a reduction in incidents from 2016 to 2018 at his company. And, “Another company, a leading producer of high calcium and dolomitic lime, chemical grade limestone and crushed limestone aggregate products, volunteered 20 of their sites, totaling 1,002 employees, to complete the study.” The results were so positive, that this company formed a coalition of employees and used the NIOSH research team’s work to improve the health and safety operations at all of its 28 production facilities, which are staffed by 2,000 workers. According to the safety manager at Carmeuse, a lime and stone mining company, “This collaboration is one of the factors that has led to Carmeuse having our lowest reportable injury rate ever.”

The Gears of Government President’s Award narrative describing the work led by Dr. Haas said her team’s approach “allowed companies to tailor their own methods and management processes to develop a mining workforce needed for the 21st century as new innovations continue to improve and be implemented in the mining industry.”  The impact of the effort has been “industry-wide in terms of improving systems and sub-processes among the mining workforce on both a national and international level.”

Why Isn’t This Approach More Common? The NIOSH mine safety project’s success in improving the adoption of health and safety measures demonstrates the potential for the use of behavioral insights in other industries and government programs.  However, the NIOSH success cannot be solely attributed to the use of behavioral science methods.  And this might explain why these methods have not been more widely adopted.

While there are methodologies involved in applying the behavioral design process, its use requires more than just technical skills and data analytics.  It is not a one-size-fits-all approach.  It requires a different model of operation, by both the government and private industry.

In this case, the leadership demonstrated by the NIOSH project manager, Dr. Emily Haas, was seen as key. In fact, she has been recognized for her leadership of this effort via a government wide Gears of Government Award for improving government effectiveness, and has been selected as a finalist for a Sammie Award Medal.

Over the past five years, her individual persistence in moving this project forward has gained international recognition and awards. This was demonstrated by her ability to develop common objectives and create trust with voluntary partners in the mining industry, as well as her ability to ensure the sustainability of the project.

As noted by her former colleague, Jeffrey Kohler, in the narrative for her Service to America Award nomination: “We have spent a tremendous amount of time and money on implementing engineering interventions but failed to close the gap in disease levels. . . . .  We needed to merge engineering research with behavioral research, and Emily is one of the drivers in making this happen. She made the miners partners in helping to understand the disease.”

 * * * * *

Note: Here are links to related posts on this topic:

Part I:  How Can Behavioral Science Improve Program Outcomes?

Part II:  What Are Some Basic Behavioral Science Concepts?

Part III: How Is Behavioral Science Influencing Public Administration?

Part IV: Using Behavioral Science to Improve Federal Outcomes

Part V:  Using Behavioral Insights to Reduce Miner Injuries

Part VI: Nudge in the City:  Behavioral Science in Government

Part VII: Creating a Critical Mass of Talent and Resources in the Use of Behavioral Science in Government

Part VIII:  Behavioral Science: A Revolutionary Potential for Government?



Graphic Credit: Courtesy of Chatchai_stocker via