The limitations of increasing safety knowledge

How to use alternative methods to influence worker behaviour

The limitations of increasing safety knowledge
David Dunham

We in the safety industry are often focused on coming up with new ways to communicate knowledge about hazards and ways to eliminate or control them. When challenged to reduce the risks associated with working at heights, for example, we seek to fill a perceived knowledge gap among workers and supervisors. We might use injury statistics and case studies to demonstrate the extent of the problem, and then provide ways to eliminate or control the hazard.

While increasing worker awareness of risks is necessary, other industries have learned there are limits to the impact that knowledge can have in promoting lasting behavior change. The idea that a lack of knowledge is the cause for poor decision making is referred to as the knowledge deficit model. Climate scientists and climate policy makers have long recognized there are flaws in the knowledge deficit model. It might seem intuitive that increasing the public's knowledge of the risks of climate change would shift behaviours, but years of public awareness campaigns have not borne this out.

Similarly, food safety experts have struggled with the challenge of behaviour change. In the 1980s, communicating food safety risks to the public was largely a one-way effort led by authorities in times of crisis. Regulators believed that the public lacked knowledge about food safety risks and that providing information would reduce the risk of disease, but this approach did not bring about significant changes (Kasza et al.  2022).

In the safety industry, there is also often more at play than just a lack of knowledge when it comes to worker behaviour. Factors such as motivation, social norms, and accessibility of alternatives can also play a role. For example, a worker may know the risks associated with a certain task but be motivated to complete it quickly to meet a deadline or production quota. Social norms within a workplace can also influence behavior, such as the belief that it is "normal" for workers to take shortcuts or ignore safety procedures. Additionally, accessibility of alternatives, such as proper equipment or safe work procedures, can impact worker behaviour.

It is important to consider these factors when developing safety education and interventions for workers. Simply providing information on hazards and risks may not be enough to bring about lasting behaviour change. Instead, a more comprehensive approach that addresses these underlying factors may be more effective. While researching the knowledge deficit model, I came across the EAST behavioral insights model. East is a framework that can be used to design interventions that policy makers can use to change behaviour (Behavioural Insights Team, 2013). EAST stands for Easy, Attractive, Social, and Timely.

Easy: This means that interventions should be simple and convenient for people to adopt. This means reducing barriers to change, such as making it easy for people to make good decisions. You may have heard about nudging, and how people can be “nudged” to make decisions that are in their best interests. A classic example of this is designing pension plans that people are automatically enrolled in. Removing the decision to enroll has shown significant increases in long-term contributions to such plans.

Attractive: Interventions should appeal to people's self-interest and values. This means making the benefits of the desired behaviour clear and relevant to people. Again, a classic example might be incentivizing the target behaviour. Caution might be warranted when implementing any safety incentive program and employers are encouraged to do further research before handing out trinkets.

Social: Interventions should take into account the social norms and influences that affect behaviour. This means leveraging social networks and social norms to encourage behaviour change. This might mean promoting the behaviours you are seeking and seeking out champions for your cause.

Timely: Interventions should be delivered at the right time, when people are most likely to be receptive to change. This means understanding the context of your workplace and how likely workers will be to adopt a behaviour change. Examples of appropriate timing might be when new equipment is introduced or shortly after an incident has occurred.

What might this look like in safety? Applying Behavioural Insights might mean that instead of providing a long and complex safety manual, interventions can be broken down into simple and easily digestible chunks, with the benefits of safety clearly communicated and made relevant to the individual worker. Additionally, interventions can include social norms and demonstrations of how these interventions were successful with other workers. For example, by highlighting the positive behaviours of other workers and encouraging workers to share their own best practices. Finally, interventions can be delivered at a time that is convenient for the worker, such as when a new piece of equipment is introduced.

Increasing knowledge about hazards and risks is important for worker safety, but it is not sufficient to bring about lasting behaviour change. Other factors such as motivation, social norms, and accessibility of alternatives also play a role in worker decision-making. The EAST behavioural insights model can be used to design interventions that aim to change behaviour by making them easy to access and understand, appealing to people's self-interest and values, taking into account the social norms and influences within the workplace, and delivered at a time when workers are most likely to be receptive to change. By considering these factors and using a comprehensive approach, safety education and interventions can be more effective in promoting lasting behaviour change among workers.


Kasza, G.; Csenki, E.; Szakos, D.; Izsó, T. The evolution of food safety risk communication: Models and trends in the past and the future. Food Control 2022, 138, 109025.

Service, O.; Hallsworth, M.; Halpern, D.; Algate, F.; Gallagher, R.; Nguyen, S.; Ruda, S.; Sanders, M.; Pelenur, M.; Gyani, A.; Harper, H.; Reinhard, J.; & Kirkman, E. EAST Four simple ways to apply behavioural insights. The Behavioural Insights Team