Changing habits for worker safety

On NPR today, Morning Edition’s Renee Montagne interviewed Charles Duhigg, a New York Times business reporter and author of “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.” In the interview, Duhigg discussed habit research and how Paul O’Neill turned around aluminum producer Alcoa when he became CEO of the company in 1987: Not by focusing on profits or efficiency, but by emphasizing worker safety.

Discussing habits generally, Duhigg gave a three-part habit framework. There’s a cue, or trigger for an automatic behavior to start; a routine, which is the behavior itself; and finally a reward, which tells our brains to repeat the behavior. In a recent NYT story, Duhigg wrote about a habit he had formed–going to the cafeteria every afternoon for a chocolate-chip cookie–and how he analyzed it to figure out the reason for the behavior. He wasn’t hungry, he found; instead, he wanted to socialize with his colleagues. Importantly, the key to changing habitual behavior is to build it into what you already do, Duhigg wrote:

To shift the routine — to socialize, rather than eat a cookie — I needed to piggyback on an existing habit. So now, every day around 3:30, I stand up, look around the newsroom for someone to talk to, spend 10 minutes gossiping, then go back to my desk. The cue and reward have stayed the same. Only the routine has shifted. It doesn’t feel like a decision… It’s now a habit.

Focusing on Alcoa and O’Neill, Duhigg told NPR that Alcoa managers and employees had been at odds, and O’Neill’s directive to focus on safety got both parties to sit down at the same table. As they studied production processes to make them safer, they also made them more efficient and improved product quality. Safety was a “keystone habit” at Alcoa, Duhigg said. “If you can change a keystone habit, you unlock all these other patterns in someone’s life or in an organization.”

O’Neill’s legacy lives on at Alcoa, Duhigg says in his book (quote courtesy of Amazon’s “Search Inside This Book”):

Even in his absence, the injury rate has continued to decline. In 2010, [a decade after O’Neill retired,] 82 percent of Alcoa locations didn’t lose one employee day due to injury, close to an all-time high. On average, workers are more likely to get injured at a software company, animating cartoons for movie studios, or doing taxes as an accountant than handling molten aluminum at Alcoa.

As of 2006, Alcoa was one of the world’s top three aluminum producers, according to the Economist. The company currently employs 61,000 people in 31 countries and is “the world’s leading integrated aluminum company,” according to its website.

Are there lessons here for research laboratory safety? I’m curious to hear from Safety Zone readers: How would you apply the cue/routine/reward framework to development of safer work habits? And as Alcoa saw, is it possible that improving lab safety would have side benefits, such as improving understanding of reactions or communication between labmates?

Other stories on O’Neill, Alcoa, and worker safety:

Update: Duhigg was also interviewed on Fresh Air on March 5. Listen here.

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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4 Comments

  1. can grad student unions play a role in insuring/encouraging safely? From all of the discussions that we have had, it seems like safety is too big of a project for watchdog institutions like CSB and mandates are difficult to enforce, why not have a the union be where grad students can go to discuss the unsafe conditions of their laboratory?

  2. Placing focus on existing lab safety issues can force lab members to evaluate their current habits and improve them. For example training lab members on key concepts such as eliminating distractions in the lab such as phones calls and talking while performing lab experiments. Being in a rush during lab experiments can lead to increased safety risks. If we can retrain such a bad habit the rewards would include better research results and less laboratory accidents.

  3. Following safety protocol results in better work output over time. Employees that feel safe in their environment will be more productive. The risk of injury or illness is less, which means that less work time will be lost.

  4. I’m impressed that Paul O’Neill came up with this approach at Alcoa. It worked because paying attention to safety built trust between workers and management (especially when management actually made changes) and replaced an adversarial relationship with a collaborative one.

    I think this would work well in academic labs. Discussions of procedures will lead to both technique improvements and better lab safety.