In this article we’ll consider some of the more traditional perspectives on potential risks and risk control with regard to workplace lighting, before exploring a fascinating and ground breaking scientific study that reveals why your employees really do want to be seen in the best possible light.

Good workplace lighting plays an important role in the creation and maintenance of a safe and healthy workplace by permitting employees to work efficiently and comfortably.

Good lighting allows employees to read work instructions, safety data, product details and hazard warning signs and labels to ensure compliance with safety protocols. These measures are put in place to ensure safety compliance at work, but does workplace lighting influence our actual behaviour in the workplace – and if so, why?

Identifying hazards

The risk assessment process helps us to identify not just workplace hazards, but also those persons who may be at increased risk of harm; for example, pregnant women. Once a pregnant employee is identified, employers are duty-bound to take suitable and sufficient action to prevent harm to the worker and her unborn child. Often, we look at the specific risks of her workplace and aim to perhaps reduce repetitive tasks, long periods of sitting, or manual handling, work flow and demands and so on.

“good workplace lighting plays an important role in the creation and maintenance of a safe and healthy workplace”

We might also review the working environment that she is employed within, checking for potential exposure to hazardous chemicals, significant levels of workplace noise, or for harmful radiation. During the risk assessment process do we mindfully consider workplace lighting? I suspect we do not. Perhaps it’s more likely that our lady colleague is already working in an area with sufficient light, and it hasn’t been flagged as a risk before.

In fact, I suspect that for many organisations – and certainly most of our own clients – conducting a formal assessment of workplace lighting is something rarely done, if ever. Sure, there are some organisations that may have engaged experts with a meter and diligently patrolled all work areas, noting lumen and lux levels, but I suggest that these may be few and far between.

Managing the risks

The process of identifying and controlling the risks from workplace lighting basically follows the standard risk assessment protocols enshrined in national legislation around the world. In Europe, for example, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1992 and accompanying guidance outlines five key steps to risk assessment. You can find these five steps in the box above.

Immediate hazards from workplace lighting are wide ranging and can include glare, stroboscopic effects, flicker, reflection, optical radiation, infrared radiation and ultraviolet radiation. There is some excellent technical guidance on how to manage these risks, which is available free of charge from most safety regulatory bodies around the world, so while we won’t go into detail here to repeat that, let’s instead focus on some of the more subtle risks that lighting presents.

At one of our clients’ workplaces recently a serious injury was sustained by a member of staff while using some stairs in a production area. The injured person was descending a staircase in a corridor to the far side of the main work area, the stairs were in good condition, well-maintained, and featured non-slip edging and handrails on both sides – which, at the time of the incident, were being utilised by the worker. As you read this description, you may well be wondering how the accident occurred. As the worker reached the end of the staircase and stepped down to the ground level she caught her foot on the final step, causing her to lose balance and fall to the floor.

“during the risk assessment process do we mindfully consider workplace lighting?”

Through the accident investigation process our client noticed that the colour of the steps and the colour of the ground level were a very similar shade of dark grey, and the lighting towards the bottom of the stairs was poor – with some of the bulbs not working. Staff reported later that several of the lights had been out for quite some time.

At another client organisation site, the conclusions of an accident investigation – involving a pedestrian being struck by a moving vehicle – revealed similar findings. Deficient lighting in the work area prevented the vehicle’s driver seeing the pedestrian clearly. It was interesting to note that in this instance, even with acknowledged low levels of lighting, pedestrians were neither required to wear, nor did they systematically consider, high-visibility clothing to help vehicle drivers see them while in these dimly-lit areas.

Poor lighting can also lead to increased health issues. On a long haul flight from America to Europe recently I experienced this personally: keen to finish an article for a journal, I opened my laptop on the plane and began working away. After around 45 minutes, my eyes felt hot and itchy – classic symptoms of eyestrain – and I could feel a strong headache fast approaching. Normally I don’t suffer these problems, so what was wrong? Quickly I realised that on this overnight flight the cabin lights had been dimmed. Even though my laptop screen was bright enough for me to see what I was writing, the contrast caused by the surrounding darkness was affecting me without my noticing.

Higher risk

Now we have reviewed some of the hazards associated with lighting, let’s continue to follow the ‘Five Steps’ approach and consider who might be harmed. Clearly there is the potential for everyone to be susceptible to such hazards, but are there some people at higher risk than others? At the outset of this article we briefly considered pregnant workers, but who else should we think about?

Accident statistics around the globe consistently underline two worker groups that appear to be at increased risk of workplace injury: those new in post, and older workers.

The first grouping is common to every organisation and comprises those employees who are new to the business, department or task in hand. The second cohort contains those who are deemed ‘older workers’ – typically presented as the ‘50 years and over’ age bracket. Recall the worker who fell on the staircase – the incident occurred one week before she celebrated her 56th birthday.  Also spare a thought for a 19-year-old new recruit struck by the forklift truck as he crossed the logistics yard under the cover of darkness.

Shine a light

So far in this article, we’ve considered the risks and hazards associated with workplace lighting, but can lighting provide an upside? It may be so.

“deficient lighting in the work area prevented the vehicle driver seeing the pedestrian clearly”

In 1920, Australian sociologist Elton Mayo and his team of researchers wanted to study the effect of physical work conditions on productivity. Mayo’s ground-breaking study centred on the production lines of the Western Electric Company at their factories in Hawthorne, a suburb of Chicago in the United States of America.

In fine scientific rigor two groups of employees were the subjects of the study. The two groups of workers were employed as production line operators, working at the same pay grade and involved in similar manual activities within the factory environment. One group was steadily and repeatedly exposed to fluctuations in lighting within its work areas. Adjustments were made to variably decrease and increase the level of light provided, while the second group – the control group – worked in an area where the lighting remained unchanged for the entire period of the study. Mayo’s hypothesis was that those working with enhanced lighting would surely be more productive.

In the first stage of the study, day after day the lighting was gradually increased and the research team watched dutifully from the sidelines. Just as Mayo and his team had anticipated, the productivity of workers in the highly illuminated work area was observed to improve. Brilliant news: now, just by improving workplace lighting businesses around the world could maximise productivity. It must have been an exciting conclusion, and one that would have thrilled the management of the Western Electric Company. You can imagine the rush to order additional lighting fittings for the entire factory.

Mayo and his team of scientists departed the factory pleased with their discovery, but the success was short-lived. Within days of the study ending, the productivity of the group of workers that enjoyed the enhanced lighting returned to the previous levels – the group was back at the same productivity as the control group. How could this be?

Let there be light

Western Electric summoned Mayo to return and a second round of studies began. This time around, a second randomised selection of workers was chosen, using workers who had not been involved in the first experiment. Under controlled conditions, a control group was selected and a new comparison group received enhanced lighting in their work area. Mayo’s team again observed closely. Yet again the productivity of the group with extra lighting began to soar, even going beyond the increased productivity noted in the first round.

The scientists were puzzled – at face value, they appeared to be able to prove and further support their initial thesis that more light equates to increased productivity. Mayo decided to wander over to the control group and see how they were doing. Within a short time of the researchers setting up camp, something amazing occurred – the productivity of the control group started to increase. Even without the additional lighting, it appeared that workers were getting more done. After an extended period of observation, the scientists revised their hypotheses and advanced that productivity increased not due to the changes in the work environment, but because of the attention levied on the workers by the research team.

Watching you, watching me

The Hawthorne effect as it has become known, refers to the tendency of some people to work harder and perform better when they are aware that they are being observed. It seemed to matter not whether a light was being shone on them, when they realised they were being watched, workers simply wanted to be seen favourably, or ‘in the best light’. Mayo’s conclusion was that individuals appear to change their behaviours as a direct result of the attention they receive.

“we’ve considered the risks and hazards associated with workplace lighting, but can lighting provide an upside?”

Is it really this simple? Is all we need to do to increase efficiency to simply stand and watch the workforce? Even Mayo himself was skeptical and felt there must be more to it.  His research team returned to the Western Electric Company in the 1930s and began a much broader study, looking at the dynamics of worker interaction across the whole company. They quickly noted and became fascinated with the informal employee groups that seemed to be created within the formal structure of the company. It seemed that workers banded together and formed cliques and groups for some reason. Deeper investigations continued and revealed that each of these little groupings was cemented by a common theme or value. By exploring the beliefs and creeds that make individuals feel part of an integrated group Mayo found that beyond the power and impact of observation was the importance of group dynamics.

Mayo concluded that:

“The desire to stand well with one’s fellows, the so-called human instinct of association, easily outweighs the merely individual interest and the logic of reasoning upon which so many spurious principles of management are based.”

Mayo’s studies at Western Electric revealed that it was this sense of team spirit, based on unwritten codes of conduct within the group formed by and within themselves that determined the output of individual workers. It wasn’t necessary to install extra staff as ‘productivity monitors’ around the factory. While the work environment may be important for comfort and wellbeing, the scientists revealed that the desire for people within their respective groups to be seen to be efficient and effective was a far greater driver for action.

The Hawthorne studies provide two important lessons for those interested in improving safety at work. First is that the act of observation in itself has the power to influence human behaviour. Almost all human beings usually seem to want to be observed, quite literally, in ‘the best light’, but beyond just looking good as an individual, it would appear that people take even more pride and personal satisfaction in demonstrating their efficacy and contribution in a group setting.

Being in the best light

Behaviour-Based Safety (BBS) programmes often include an element of formal observation. Think about the process of observing employees in your organisation. Are your workers acting so as to be seen in ‘the best light’? What happens when the light stops shining on them? Does their behaviour change like the workers displaying the Hawthorne effect?

Mayo and his team found that team-working provided a strong boost to productivity through the creation of group pride. What opportunities are provided within your organisation that might encourage the formation of strong bonds, positive beliefs, creeds and unwritten codes of conduct within work teams?

Published: 17th Sep 2015 in Health and Safety International