The importance of personal protective equipment (PPE) in safety culture has been brought sharply into focus by the COVID-19 crisis. But how can we make our heightened awareness last, and reinforce better habits around protective workwear? Using behavioural science insights can help.

Renaming or reframing

The reason is that much of the time, the industry’s focus is not actually on ‘health’ and ‘safety’ as two abstract subjects that someone might study academically. It’s on the much more practical, life-saving end of the spectrum – helping and encouraging people to choose ways in which to stay healthy and act safely while working in dangerous environments, even if that choice is barely conscious.

Perhaps ‘choosing to stay healthy and act safely while working in dangerous environments’ doesn’t quite trip off the tongue as smoothly as ‘health and safety’, but that subtle shift of focus is actually quite fundamental to improving the way we think about keeping employees safeguarded from harm.

It’s about behaviour, fundamentally. Whether or not people put on their helmets, goggles, boots and gloves each day is a decision that employees choose to make (or not make) every time they set foot on a construction site or factory floor.

This is why behavioural science absolutely can and should be a first port of call when thinking about how to keep us all safe at work – because human behaviour is such an important part of the health and safety equation. Whatever the industry, every work environment – whether it’s a hospital, a ship, a construction site, a warehouse or a factory – still relies on the people who work there reacting to the contexts they work within. Those contexts can either support or hinder the adoption of healthier and safer behaviours like wearing protective workwear.

Workplace irrationality

As you’ll probably have found throughout your career, people don’t always behave logically, or rationally, when presented with information or campaigns to keep them safe from harm. They become desensitised to signage, they lift their masks to scratch their noses around dangerous substances, and they ignore lifesaving advice until they or someone they know actually becomes affected by the issue you’re guarding against. These aren’t rational decisions, but they are fundamentally human and predictable reactions to risky working environments that we observe time and again.

Having a clear understanding of behavioural science is simply a case of becoming far better equipped to predict what those true reactions to your messages and campaigns to keep people safe will actually be. Once you have that, you can ensure your HSSE campaigns go with the grain of real human psychology, so they’re more effective at encouraging the safest and most responsible behaviours from real people in the real world.

The thing to bear in mind is that whatever messages, campaigns or changes we deploy into people’s workspaces, those environments will have some effect on the way your people actually behave, be it positively or negatively; rationally or irrationally.

By understanding the science of how people will react to those messages and campaigns, you’re simply in a far greater position to choose what those reactions will be by design.

So, what does this mean for the ways to encourage the use of protective equipment? Sadly, despite our best efforts, there are still thousands of workplace injuries and deaths every year, and many of them simply stem from human error. How can we use an understanding of real human behaviour to reduce that risk to our workforces?

Diagnosing the behavioural barriers

A good place to start when thinking about safety processes is to identify the barriers between your people and the safer behaviours you want to see. Susan Michie’s COM–B model can be a great tool here. It describes the phenomenon that we only see people behave in certain ways when three things are present: capability, opportunity, and motivation. Firstly, capability is the the employee’s current knowledge and skills level. Do they know what kind of protective workwear to use and when? What’s getting in the way of people being crystal clear on that information? Are there any skills they need to develop to wear equipment more effectively?

Opportunities refers to environmental factors that make the desired behaviour possible.

“people don’t say what they think and don’t do what they say”

What are the physical barriers preventing people from being able to use the correct protective equipment (e.g. it’s locked away out of sight)? What’s making it harder for people use PPE at the point its required? What prompts or changes could be put in place to remind people to use their PPE at the right times?

Motivations is how inclined people are to carry out the desired behaviour. Are there incentives you could put in place around the use of protective workwear? Is it clear why it’s so important that people wear their equipment for them personally, for the business, and for their families should something happen to them? How could extra motivation be injected?

Intuitively it feels right to simply ask people what these COM-B barriers to action are, but as David Ogilvy from the world of advertising once famously explained: “People don’t say what they think and don’t do what they say.”

People will likely say they know not to wear the same pair of gloves for too long because it risks contaminating other surfaces. And yet on a busy nightshift where a nurse is pulled from pillar to post, wearing the same pair for hours on end is understandably likely to happen. If that is what you observe, the question then becomes, how can you make the capability, opportunity and motivation easier for that nurse, so that tired and distracted staff are more likely to change gloves at regular, safe intervals?

By all means ask your staff what they feel these barriers are, but you’ll find the best way to uncover these roadblocks is to observe real people in action.

Using this COM-B model, we can identify where the roadblocks are between intentions to work as safely as possible, and the action to actually do so. Once you have that, you’ll be in a position to use a whole raft of behavioural principles to inspire people to act in their best interests.

This is where behavioural science really starts to earn its keep – with inexpensive changes that can yield huge, sometimes life-saving results. Here’s a series of behavioural science inspired tools and techniques – and some ideas – that we think you could use to encourage more people to use their PPE more effectively in the workplace.

Spacing effects

We don’t learn new information in one fell swoop. If we did you’d never have needed to revise for your exams back in school. Instead we learn with repeated messages, delivered over multiple media, spread out over healthy periods of time. We need that ‘space’ between learning sessions to crystallise new ideas in our minds.

This means, if you need people to use their workwear in a particular way, don’t only tell them once and assume that’s enough; it isn’t. You need to break the messages down into bitesized chunks and think about how to share them in lots of different ways.

By all means, send them a letter explaining it and put in into your employee handbook, but also don’t forget to put reminder stickers on lockers, posters around the building  and encourage line managers to regularly demonstrate the right behaviours and (gently) correct the wrong ones, too.

Messenger effects

A good place to start with workwear design ideas is to make use of messengers to try and increase employee safety behaviour motivation. The messenger effect is the phenomenon where people pay much more attention to information delivered by people they admire, love or respect, or who are very similar to them.

So, what if safety messages could be delivered not by the company, but by the people your employees care about most in the world? One idea is to get employees’ families and friends to express just how important it is to them for their loved one to come home safe each day and then literally make this sentiment part of their workwear. This could be done, for example, by using stickers featuring photos of family, friends and even pets to wear on the helmet they put on each and every day, beside a message like: ‘Please come home in one piece! Accidents at work hurt the most at home’.

In effect, every time the employee puts on their helmet, they would see their family members and be reminded of why they should be motivated to stay safe.

The IKEA effect

Another motivation lever that you could use is the IKEA effect; this is the principle that we value things that we’ve created ourselves more than similar things we haven’t.

With that in mind, building on the messenger effects sticker idea outlined above, why not create an online ‘shop’ where all your workers can personally upload pictures of their families, friends or pets and print off stickers, ready to place on their helmets or high-vis jackets? That personal involvement will strengthen the overall effect, because studies suggest that actually making the sticker themselves would not only mean that employees value the stickers more – but also the safety messages that adorn them.

“accidents at work hurt the most at home”

Picture superiority effect

Pictures are easier to understand and recall than words. The reason is that we codify images in our minds in two ways: first as the visual image we’re seeing and second as the concept that the image represents. So you see a picture of a dog and your mind says ‘that’s a dog’, at the same time you’re also memorising the visual image of the dog itself.

When it comes to workwear, you could consider using visual shortcuts to instantly remind your workers about possible danger around them – for example, skeleton outlines printed on gloves to remind people to protect the bones in their fingers, or 3D patterns on floors that resemble speed bumps to remind people to slow their pace at certain points. These visual cues could serve as prompts or timely reminders when people need them most.

The rhyme-as-reason effect

Cognitive shortcuts like pictures are good – but you can also use rhyme. Not only are statements that rhyme more catchy, studies show we actually
believe them more. This is strange, but true – we are also more likely to remember sentences that rhyme than those that don’t, possibly due to the additional ease we have in mentally processing them.

Can you come up with a short, catchy slogan for how your workwear keeps you safe and print it onto garments or around the building – to make it more memorable for workers? If you can, it will etch a clear instruction into your employees’ minds. If the instruction rhymes, it feels even more like wise advice to follow.

While this can feel like a daunting task when you need to translate materials into several languages, approach the task by working on transcreation, rather than translation. Brief your markets to review safety slogans and create memorable and sticky versions of the same messages that work for them.

Commitment devices

We like to behave consistently with what we say we’ll do. If we don’t, it creates ‘cognitive dissonance’ in our minds that feels so uncomfortable, we have to resolve it. It’s why we ask people to commit to ‘tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’ before they give testimony in a court of law.

The lie then feels uncomfortable for the majority of people.

To make use of this device in terms of your employees’ workwear habits, get your team to publicly commit to always using their protective gear correctly, perhaps in a special workplace ceremony or by making them sign up to some sort of visible and shared pledge document.

“a powerful motivation to stay true to their word and really try to use their protective workwear in the right way”

This creates a powerful motivation for them to stay true to their word and really try to use their protective workwear in the right way.

Reciprocity bias

Linked to commitment is reciprocity. Humans are hardwired to return kindnesses we feel we have received. This is a strong, powerful global social rule, meaning that our initial actions can have a big effect on how others respond in reaction.

As an organisation, you could harness this simply by sending a short, heartfelt, handwritten note with new workwear kit from a line manager – or even the CEO – letting the employee know how important their safety is to them personally and asking them to please take care. In the face of such a gesture, workers will feel an impulse to respond, which will likely mean they take a more consciously active part learning and maintaining great safety behaviours.


Gamification is the process of adding components from games to mandatory tasks to make them “feel” more like games. How do we do this? Well, we borrow things like adding narrative structure, elements of challenge, awarding points and badges for actions along the way, and adding in regular and varied feedback loops.

Could you create some kind of game-like elements to engage workers with using their safety workwear correctly – like perhaps offering them collectable or customisable elements that they can “earn”, or competitions centred around correct use of safety gear over long periods of time that lead to prizes? This could really help to make your safety processes a lot more compelling – and therefore effective.

Things to be careful of

Be wary of using a negative tone, or publicly shaming or punishing those who are not as compliant as you’d like. Here, people may be affected by the autonomy bias, which is the need to feel like you are making your own choices.

If you are too heavy-handed, you could inadvertently trigger reactance, which is the tendency to do the opposite of what someone wants you to do because you think they are trying to constrain your freedom of choice. We can see this in how some of the public are responding to being asked to wear masks in response to COVID-19 safety measures. For this reason, focus on positive reinforcement of the right behaviours instead.

Whilst there are a number of ideas here, there are endless possibilities of how you could use these insights in your workplace. It’s therefore useful to dive into the research and look for inspiration from others in your industry – what have similar companies to you tried out, and how did their initiatives go?

Ultimately, you need to work with the reality of how people actually behave, and then be creative and find some things that you think will work especially well for your team.