Using Design Thinking to Improve Worker Safety in Manufacturing

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Unsafe working conditions and unsafe work practices pose a massive challenge to the vast Indian economy. Improving workforce safety should be a priority for all companies in India, even as they often struggle to balance safety with productivity demands. One manufacturing company wanted to know if new approaches to workplace safety and worker training could help. Working with a design thinking firm, they experimented with how behavioral techniques could help them understand why workers make unsafe choices and why unsafe conditions would go unreported. The hope was that human-centered ethos of design thinking could help reframe this problem in ways that regular process improvements alone could not.

The Indian workforce boasts more than 450 million people, with over 50 million employed in the manufacturing industry. Within this vast and fast-moving economy, unsafe working conditions and unsafe work practices pose a massive challenge. Government figures show that work-related accidents, which are second only to road accidents, killed at least 47,000 people in 2019 (and it should be noted that many believe these numbers to be largely underreported at the national level). Improving workforce safety is a priority for all responsible Indian organizations, even as they often struggle to balance safety and productivity demands. Acknowledging that quandary, we wanted to know whether new approaches to workplace safety and worker training may be able to help keep more workers safe.

Our design thinking firm was hired by an Indian firm, ITC Limited, which has a diversified presence across industries such as cigarettes and tobacco products, consumer goods, hotels, packaging, paperboards, specialty papers, and agribusiness. ITC has invested years of effort and significant capital towards eliminating unsafe conditions and benchmarking work practices against global best standards. But progress was starting to slow. Their search for new ways to continue the trend toward a safer workplace — ultimately one with a vision of zero employee accidents — led them to our door. We discussed new ways to think about this problem — from the behavioral side of workplace safety, using design thinking.

Why design thinking? ITC realized that while process improvements and state of art infrastructure would help reduce accidents, these interventions were not enough. Despite on-going safety assessments, accessible standard operating procedures, frequent safety training schedules, accidents still happened. Examples of these accidents included improper handling of materials and chemicals, entrapment in rotating machinery, and falling from heights. In conversations with our firm that spanned several months, what emerged was the need to better understand worker and manager attitudes and behaviors toward safety. Specifically, ITC was interested in understanding:

  1. Why workers might make unsafe choices even when they were aware they could wind up hurt
  2. Why unsafe working conditions were not actively reported by workers and resolved by managers in a timely manner

The hope was that human-centered ethos of design thinking could help reframe this problem in ways that regular process improvements alone could not. We began our work in one of ITC’s largest factories and focused on one integrated unit.

Developing a design thinking approach

Our firm used a blended research design, which is a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods, in an effort to provide depth and breadth on the complex topic of safety behavior. We began with safety assessments in the form of a survey that workers and managers filled out. If needed, we would assist team members in completing the survey.

Next, we used an approach we fondly call the sandwich method, which included two rounds of interviews. In the first round of interviews, we explored safety awareness and safe practices, as well as the level of priority they associated with safety on the job. Then, we observed managers and employees at work for many hours — while trying to blend in so they wouldn’t feel like they were being watched. We interviewed managers and workers again after this observation, when we were able to better understand the differences between what they were saying versus what they were actually doing. This also provided a clearer view of factors like awareness, behavior, enforcement, employee dynamics, and business priorities that influenced safety.

Next, we used attitude mapping, a visual technique that explores instant associations made with words, images, and phrases. We asked workers and managers to map how they think about unsafe acts in their personal lives (like jumping off a running bus or running a red traffic light). The associations they shared against each word helped us better understand how workers and managers thought about safety by evaluating their tolerance for different types of risky activities. This allowed us to better understand the belief systems individuals employ around safety prioritization, their attitudes and perceptions towards safety and productivity, and the dynamics between different organizational levels and stakeholders.

Equipped with this baseline understanding of attitudes toward safety, we then experimented with behavioral nudges to see if they might help workers make safer choices and help managers supervise workplace safety more efficiently. For example, we experimented with a pre-commitment behavioral nudge because when people actively commit to a goal they are more likely to achieve it. To do this, we listed known unsafe conditions on whiteboards, with managers committing to a date for resolving the issue. This not only encouraged managers to achieve their resolution dates, it encouraged workers to actively report unsafe conditions.

When taking risks earns the respect of your peers

Our blended research design generated data from surveys, observation, conversations, attitude mapping, and behavioral nudges. Our next task was to synthesize that research to define the deep-rooted problems that needed to be addressed and provide insights that would inspire and inform solutions.

One insight we found was that when safety messaging was relegated to the background, production and efficiency took precedence over everything else in the minds of the workers and managers. Safety was seen as the responsibility of management — true enough, but it also requires good decision making at an individual manager and worker level. Additionally, performing risky acts equated to a respected level of expertise or experience amongst peers. In other words, people took unsafe chances to impress other people. These were perceptions we and ITC had to set about changing.

To start, we conducted boot camps on Design Thinking and Behavioral Economics in order to allow managers to take ownership of new approaches to worker safety. We wanted to shift the conversation around worker safety to one where everyone holds the same assumptions and starts from the same place. In the bootcamps, managers were introduced to our methodology and the research findings and insights. Working together, we co-created solutions to overcome common problem areas.

For example, to keep safety messaging top of mind for workers and managers, we designed safety tokens that someone could easily slip in their pocket, for an active, tactile reminder to make safe choices throughout the day. The workers picked up a token as they entered the factory. At the end of the day the worker was asked to privately and anonymously assess how safe they have been during the day by placing their token in the box labelled “safe” or “unsafe.” The opportunity to be reflective about their safety behavior made them more aware of the safety messaging. Over time, we noticed fewer risky or unsafe behaviors and the “safe” box had more safety tokens than the “unsafe box.”

We also made use of the pre-commitment nudge. We co-created a solution with ITC that emphasized two-way accountability for safety. Managers expected workers to not commit unsafe acts and workers expected managers to fix unsafe conditions quickly. Each held the other responsible, thereby creating two-way accountability. To do this, the factory floor housed a list of reported unsafe conditions, including status and, eventually, the date of resolution. Factory-wide safety celebrations were held with senior management rewarding managers and workers for showing safe behavior, for reporting unsafe conditions, and for quickly resolving unsafe conditions. Over time, we saw workers who took unsafe or risky chances to impress their peers now opting to stay with safety guidelines.

And, as workers and managers began to understand the importance of individual behavior in creating a safe workplace, they became the biggest evangelists of how to adhere to and support safe practices.

Indicators of progress, but a long road ahead

The factory unit’s safety metrics began to improve in the two sections selected for the pilot program. More unsafe conditions were being reported by workers and managers were resolving those conditions faster. Safety became everyone’s responsibility. These improvements were important indicators in reducing the number of accidents. Encouraged by these results we are expanding the solution across the factory, modifying our solution design to new areas of specialty and providing training as needed.

This wasn’t a small endeavor. Design thinking is an in-depth process of research, ideation, and experimentation. It requires patience and time to see improvement. Applying it to an issue as important as worker safety required careful planning and the participation of many individuals, which adds to the effort’s costs. But we found that by better understanding worker assumptions and engaging in rapid experimentation, this kind of behavioral work can be a potent tool to make improvements to worker safety. Behaviors don’t change overnight — but in this case, it is well worth the wait when it has the potential to save lives.

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