You’ve written a lovely new risk assessment for your workplace, you’ve reduced the risk as far as you can and you’ve selected some shiny new Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to mop up the remaining risk.
You’re happy, your team is safe and you can relax with a cuppa now, right?
Probably not. The trouble is, as soon as you turn your back, many of the workers won’t wear their PPE. Frustrated? I’ve been there myself and don’t blame you for your frustration! You want to protect your team, but you don’t want to spend all your time moaning at them to achieve this.
This article will give you an insight into why this situation might crop up and what you should do about it.
Humans are richly complex, varied creatures and are motivated in many different ways. It’s a generalisation of course, but people always prefer to do things that will give them soon, certain and positive results.
On the other hand, people will generally avoid doing things which will give them distant, uncertain and negative results. Doing things that produce this kind of outcome will tend to be overlooked, ignored, avoided or argued against much more often.
What does this mean in practice? Let’s step away from PPE for a moment and look at smoking first – it’s perhaps a more familiar example. Here are some of the things that tobacco smoking could give you:
A temporary high from the nicotine
Satisfaction of a habit craving (e.g. smoking after a meal)
Peer acceptance within your social group
Increased risk of cancers
Increased risk of respiratory diseases
Yellowing teeth and fingers
Significant expense over time
You can see from these lists that the positive outcomes are happen fairly soon and are also fairly certain – the smoker is going to get that nicotine hit and satisfy that habit craving, and they are going to get it right now. They might feel more accepted by their peer group too.
The things in the negative list are pretty distant though (in fact, they might be years away). They are also uncertain – not everyone who smokes develops disease, but it’s much more likely of course.
As a result, most people will naturally focus on the positive list, whether they realise it or not, despite the significant problems that the negative list represents.
Following soon, certain and positive behaviour therefore is generally more satisfying, gratifying and makes us happier (in the short term).
All of this goes some way towards explaining why quitting smoking is hard work.
Unfortunately, it’s going to take conscious thought, habit and effort to overcome this hardwired system of motivation. Anyone who has ever tried to quit smoking, stop procrastinating, lose weight or start an exercise plan will know how hard it is to succeed in the long term!
Let’s apply this now to our PPE problem, using earplugs as a typical example. Here’s a similar list of positive and negative outcomes for NOT wearing earplugs in a noisy workshop (from the workers perspective):
Distant, Uncertain and Negative
There is a significant risk of hearing loss in the future
They might get caught and told off
They might get disciplinary action one day in the future
Soon, Certain and Positive
Their ears are more comfy
Their ears are less sweaty on hot days
They can hear the radio / colleagues / ambient noise better
They don’t have to find / wash / replace any earplugs today
Looking at these lists, you’ll see straight away that ‘normal’ motivational behavior is just not on our side when we are looking for good PPE compliance. The soon, certain and positive outcome for the worker is best achieved by NOT wearing the earplugs. That’s a big problem of course for you, the manager.
So, what can you do to improve your PPE compliance then? Here are six things:
- Trial several different types of PPE and look not just at protection levels and cost, but user comfort too. Spend time choosing, don’t just pick the first one in the catalogue.
- Involve the workers in PPE selection and give them a choice. They are much more likely to wear the PPE if they choose it themselves.
- Allow workers to personalize or customize their PPE, as long as the effectiveness isn’t compromised of course. There are companies for instance that offer funky custom hard hats, such as Rad Hats.
- Build a compliance culture slowly and methodically so that peer pressure works for you, not against In a strong safety culture, the workers will police themselves effectively and you will rarely need to step in.
- Focus on positive reinforcement. Say thank you to the workers who wear their earplugs, rather than just moaning at the ones who don’t. Regular praise provides the worker with a soon, certain and positive outcome!
- Make sure everyone understands the reason they need to wear the PPE. “Because it’s the law”, or “because the Safety Manager says so” is unlikely to be effective. Give them lots of information about the risks and help them to understand why wearing the PPE is a sensible choice.
Most importantly, see your improvements as a continual ongoing process – don’t expect to introduce spot changes and then walk away – this is unlikely to stick.
I’d love to hear other ways that have been successful for you to encourage good PPE compliance, let me know in the comments section below.
Director, Haysman Consulting Limited
Chartered Safety and Health Practitioner