Making Projects Safer Through Behavioural Science


The way we think about construction health and safety is fundamentally flawed. We put all the focus on convincing the individual to think or tell them don’t walk by without ever really realising that this approach overlooks everything we’ve discovered about human behaviour.

Humans react to their environment, the people around them and the place they are in. We are not separate entities; we are integral parts of the fabric of the world.

We don’t Stop because we’re told to and there’s no single common sense or definition of Think that works for everyone. Asking someone to Stop and Think is not going to make anyone any safer.

Traditional safety initiatives blame incidents on the inherent faults in the individual rather than looking for the situational influences from within the environment. This Fundamental Attribution Error (blaming the individual) pushes us to discipline a worker whose focus was on getting the job done for us and didn't intentionally put themselves in a position where they thought they'd sustain an injury.

If we investigate the situational factors around an incident without rushing to blame an individual we stand a much better chance of learning something new that will help us change the environment, leading to new, improved and safer outcomes in the future.


In 2016, with a recent fatality and a lost limb, the building of Borders Railway in Scotland was a serious cause for concern. It was the biggest Scottish infrastructure project of 2013/2014, to re-establish (after 40 years), a disused passenger rail link from Edinburgh to Tweedbank.

The 30-mile project involved seven new stations (six of them with park-and-ride facilities), tunnels, viaducts and more than 160 bridges along an existing disused route between Newcraighall and Tweedbank. There were major new builds, roads, rail and footbridges, with complex and numerous interfaces with the existing road network including the A720 and A7 trunk roads.

The project had a Behaviour Based Safety initiative in place but was still suffering major incidents and injuries.

We were invited to take a look at the problem.

When I started the investigation, I spoke with one of the senior site supervisors and asked: ‘Where would you say the problems are?’ He responded that there were no problems with his guys. That his section of the job was well run with no issues. I spoke with other supervisors; all said a similar thing. All genuinely believed that their section of works was as safe as it could be.

With the injuries and incidents that were happening this couldn’t be true. No section of the job could have a 100% clean safety sheet.

Basic psychology tells us that most of us suffer from optimism bias, a bias that causes a person to believe that they are at a lesser risk of experiencing a negative event compared to others.

If you ask a room full of drivers to rate their driving ability, 90% of them will tell you they are above average. The maths tells us that this can’t be true.

The problem we were faced with was that things weren’t great on the project but everyone thought it was others at fault and not themselves. We had to find a way to gently show them the reality. I say gently, because if you challenge too hard, people naturally get defensive and will dig their heels in further.

We had been developing a new observation technique and this project was perfect for it. The At Risk/Reduced Risk measure at its most basic level is a tally count. How many people on site are performing their tasks according to procedure (Reduced Risk) and how many are not (At Risk).

There are no interventions (unless someone’s in mortal danger) and only a minimum of note taking. It’s all about the cold data and observing the results of the experiment before you.

Behavioural science tells us that both At-Risk and Reduced Risk behaviours are supported by the environment. Both types of behaviours don’t just happen; they are designed to happen through the system that has been set up by the project.

It took an hour and a half to travel the line with BAM’s safety guy collecting At Risk/Reduced Risk data. We collated all the results so it would represent the whole site, therefore not directly singling any one supervisor but providing a collective picture.

We shared this data with the site team. They were astonished at the number of At-Risk behaviours that had been observed. Some didn’t accept our figures so we set up a number of site tours for them to see what we were witnessing. Quite quickly we were able to gently persuade them that there was an issue, but that also there was some real opportunity.

However, the data and the acceptance that there is an issue is only the beginning. We had to show the project team how to change the environment around the worker. There was an initial reaction to blame the worker, which is a normal, but through a number of training sessions, we were able to show the site team that the worker’s behaviour is basically a result of what the environment on site is supporting.

The environment for a construction worker is mainly created by the following ingredients; the task, available materials and tools, perception of time available, the worker’s peers and their behaviour and the actions of the supervisor. The output of which is the worker’s behaviour (actions).

We trained a number of managers and supervisors how to change the environment around the worker to make it more likely that the worker would engage in Reduced Risk behaviours. The managers and supervisors changed the environment for the workers through better planning interaction and the implementation of some simple change tools.

The site continued to measure the At Risk and Reduced Risk behaviours over the next six months while frequently tweaking the environment around the worker. The project was completed one week early with no major injuries suffered or utility damages. The At Risk Behaviours reduced from 51% to 16%.

This is how we helped Borders Railway through our behavioural insights. The way our industry handles health and safety is preventing the majority of organisations from moving forward and improving. The biggest risk we face today is the belief that we have a safety strategy that works. We do not. We can however change our industry’s health and safety and help save lives through applying behavioural science.

Bob Cummins is founder and director of Sodak Limited, which uses behavioural science to help companies across the UK and overseas improve their health & safety, overall performance, identify and realise significant cost savings and make positive change more likely.

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