Nudging in the right direction: Behavioural economics to improve workplace safety
On various occasions I have criticised the Government’s reliance on “nudge theory”. The biggest use of it in the workplace health area was the Responsibility Deal which the Government quietly closed last year. This attempted to promote a voluntary approach to health issues around food, alcohol and the workplace through getting pledges from manufacturers, retailers or employers. These were generally viewed by most public health experts as being totally ineffective.
The Government has always claimed that nudge theory is evidence based, which I have disputed. In the UK, its’ application is underpinned by an ideological assumption that regulation is an inherently negative thing. The evidence is that regulation can be far more effective than behavioural interventions, as shown by a range of public safety or health issues, from seat belts use to workplace smoking.
Even the successes that are claimed are dubious. The one that is often trumpeted is when people who renew their car tax were asked to become organ donors it led to an increase in donors. Maybe so but there would probably been a much bigger increase if they had introduced legislation as the Welsh Government did by introducing a legal opt-out approach to consent?
However even I must admit that Nudge theory can work, if used properly and in addition to regulation. This week we have seen a perfect example.
The U.S. Department of Labour’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is applying the insights of behavioural economics to improve workplace safety and prevent injuries and illnesses. They have introduced a new rule where employers in high-hazard industries will send OSHA injury and illness data that the employers are already required to collect, for posting on the agency’s website. OSHA believes that public disclosure of work injury data will encourage employers to increase their efforts to prevent work-related injuries and illnesses. Assistant Secretary of Labour for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels said:
“Our new reporting requirements will ‘nudge’ employers to prevent worker injuries and illnesses to demonstrate to investors, job seekers, customers and the public that they operate safe and well-managed facilities. Access to injury data will also help OSHA better target our compliance assistance and enforcement resources at establishments where workers are at greatest risk, and enable ‘big data’ researchers to apply their skills to making workplaces safer.”
The information will be able to be used in competitive tendering for contracts as well as to name and shame the worst employers.
To ensure that the injury data on OSHA logs are accurate and complete, it also promotes an employee’s right to report injuries and illnesses without fear of retaliation, and clarifies that an employer must have a reasonable procedure for reporting work-related injuries that does not discourage employees from reporting. This aspect of the rule targets employer programs and policies that, while nominally promoting safety, have the effect of discouraging workers from reporting injuries and, in turn leading to incomplete or inaccurate records of workplace hazards.
OSHA says that using data collected under the new rule, OSHA will create the largest publicly available data set on work injuries and illnesses, enabling researchers to better study injury causation, identify new workplace safety hazards before they become widespread and evaluate the effectiveness of injury and illness prevention activities.
This must be good because the employers organisations have reacted furiously. The Guardian reports that the National Association of Manufacturers, said that “this regulation will lead to the unfair and unnecessary public shaming” of many businesses. The US unions however have strongly welcomed the move.
There is no question that this is a really positive step forward and the TUC will be calling on the HSE to do that here. We already have a prosecutions database. An injury one is just the next step forward.