• Prasanna Adhikari

Can Behavioral Science Help Improve Construction Safety?

Updated: Apr 29

If you take a look at an aerial photo of North Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, where it crosses E Walton Pl., you will notice regularly spaced white stripes on the road. On a closer look, you will also see that the space between the lines gets smaller as they get closer to the curve on the road.

Driving a vehicle on the road, as you approach the curve, the gradually closer spacing of the stripes gives you the illusion that your speed is increasing, nudging you to slow down without you even thinking about it. It is an example of leveraging what we know about human behavior to improve safety.

Safety, both driving and construction safety, can primarily be attributed to the “environment” and the “actors” in the environment. For driving, vehicles and roads are the two predominant environments, and both are much safer nowadays than they were in the past. However, despite safer roads and cars, driving accidents continue to remain one of the leading sources of deaths in the US, much of it due to the behavior of the drives, the “actors.”

Construction safety is much more challenging than driving safety. Unlike road signs or vehicle safety features, each construction environment is constantly changing. From breaking the ground until the last crew leaves the site, every construction site is in flux. As if things are not challenging enough, so are the actors in the environments. Every person visiting a job site has a different experience, training, risk aversion, innate behavioral traits, and state of mind each day. All of these do influence their decisions and actions that affect safety.

Despite the added challenges, construction accidents are nowhere close to what they used to be, thanks to the safety managers’ relentless effort. However, these unrelenting minds cannot stop but seek every possible avenue to improve safety. One such avenue we want to explore is through a better understanding of human behavior.

There is nothing new about leveraging our understanding of human behavior to improve safety. It is used routinely to make our buildings, equipment, tools, and workplaces safer. But what is done today pales in comparison with what can be done with our current understanding of human behavior.

Psychologists and neuroscientists describe our brains function in terms of two systems: an impulsive system and a deliberative system. The impulsive system endows us with instincts and emotions. The deliberative system makes us creative and analytical and gives us the ability to perform challenging tasks and exercise willpower. My impulsive system is what gave me the goosebumps and made me leap six feet away when I came upon a rattlesnake during a recent hike. My deliberative system is what I used to wait until the snake had slithered to a safe distance before I continued.

The impulsive system is the evolutionarily primitive part of our brain we share with other species. This “lizard brain” endows all the species with the automatic instinct to fight or flight. It has been and continues to be crucial for the survival of most of the species, including us. The deliberative system is the evolutionarily advanced part of our brain, our “human brain.” We use the deliberative system in our daily lives to make many decisions and take many actions, those that we do deliberately.

Even though we make many deliberative decisions, we make countless other decisions automatically and without any deliberation. For example, we likely deliberate every day about the apparel we are going to wear to work. However, as we drive to work, we make countless driving decisions (such as taping on the gas or the brake, taking a turn) without thinking about it even once. We put our impulsive, automatic lizard brain in charge of safely driving us to work.

What is more intriguing is that unbeknownst to us, even the deliberative decision we make and the actions we take are influenced by our lizard brain, which, in turn, is influenced by external factors. For example, while doctors and nurses are very mindful of the need to wash their hands, their actions can be affected by the subtle difference in the message posted on soap dispensers. That’s what researchers discovered when they changed the message on soap dispensers at a hospital from Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases to Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases and found the soap usage increase by 45 percent.

These and many other findings pave a promising avenue for improving construction safety, by nudging our lizard brains to elicit safer behaviors by adjusting the external factors, much like the messages on the soap dispensers and the markings on the North Lake Shore Drive in Chicago do.

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