A-twitter about workplace health and safety?

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Social media, interactive technology and workplace health and safety

by A.J. Boulay, Centre for Research in Occupational Safety and Health


From political uprisings to natural disasters, social media programs like Twitter and Facebook have more than proven their worth in times of crisis – helping make people aware of developments and resources, and connecting them on a global scale. In short, social media helps increase our level of ‘situational awareness.’ Thanks to Twitter, we are now aware of global events as they unfold in real time.

3-D illustration of real-time texting New Year's EveAs interactive technologies such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have become part of our everyday culture, these same principles can be applied to workplace health and safety. One of the biggest problems, particularly in mining health and safety, is poor “situational awareness,” and texting helps workplace teams gain a better sense of what’s going on. Researchers are asking, “If you had a computer program that could change the way that people think and feel about health and safety in the workplace, would you use it? What would it be like?” 

Image from video: SMS (texting) during New Year's Eve

Science, but not fiction

Scientists believe “we have entered an era of persuasive technology, of interactive computing systems designed to change people’s attitudes and behaviours.”  Many industries are interested in learning how to use interactive computing technologies for a number of reasons: to encourage behavioural change for healthier and safer work practices, to obtain more sound data regarding incidents as well as health and safety behaviour, and to develop a culture that supports these changes.

3-D computerized image of loader

Current interactive technologies like training simulations are already embedded in industries like aviation and mining. However, the interface between technology and people can also be developed in such a way as to reduce incidents. In one scenario, workers could use texting to communicate about specific hazards they encounter in the workplace, and those texts could be analyzed to prioritize concerns, and, if necessary, forwarded to the appropriate person. A burnt-out light bulb, for example, could be noted using a RF (radio frequency) tag, then analyzed by a computer, which flags the hazard for a supervisor’s attention. This would create an egalitarian reporting structure, provide more and wider information specifically tailored to a sector. 

The careful art of persuasion

Researchers also emphasize the importance of careful consideration when producing persuasive interactive technology, since the development of safety culture often requires a change of attitude. They warn that one of the main problems is that people are fundamentally wary of anyone trying to change their attitude. 

If you ask which profession is the least trusted, a typical answer might be a politician or a used car dealer. What do these two professions have in common? They both try to change our attitude: the politician is trying to convince us they have your best interests at heart, and the used car salesman is trying to convince us that the rusted heap in front of us is safe and worth twice as much as we think it is. This is why scientists believe it’s so important to examine the role of interactive technology and persuasion when it comes to health and safety in the workplace.

A good place to begin applying effective persuasion in the area of safety culture technology is in training. Powerful interactive computer tools have been examined in mining health and safety literature, such as computer simulation-virtual reality studies. Scientists at UK’s University of Nottingham mining department designed a system that simulated risk envelopes (or parameters) around the outline of a vehicle dependent upon visibility, speed, and other factors. The risk envelope changed dynamically with the movement of the vehicle. Similarly, Dr. Ratvindar Grewal and our Human-Computer Research Group at Laurentian University, and its research institute MIRARCO (Mining Innovation, Rehabilitation and Applied Research Corporation), have developed a unique 3D Virtual Reality computer system that can be used to model mine geology for many purposes. 

3-D image of seismic activityEven when these systems are used to train new operators or for refresher training, researchers believe the potential for increased safety awareness as part of the overall design process is enormous. This type of training also has financial benefits, such as fuel savings from improved driver training and increased productivity. 

Most importantly, the use of persuasive techniques in training programs, if done well, can help develop safety culture and avoid being mistaken for a used car salesman’s pitch. The integration of training and interactive persuasion is enhanced by the principle of tunneling and the principle of rehearsal described below – in fact all of the principles listed below can be seen as having a role in the design of a good simulated interactive computerized training system.

How persuasive technology can improve workplace health and safety

If you’re thinking about using social media or interactive technology to improve health and safety in your workplace, here’s a few tips to think about when designing an application or implementing an interactive technology tool: 

  1. Principle of Reduction: Using computing technology to reduce complex behaviour to simple tasks not only increases the cost-benefit ratio of the behaviour, but also influences users to perform the behaviour correctly.
  2. Principle of Tunneling: Using computing technology to guide users through a process or experience also provides opportunities to persuade along the way.
  3. Principle of Conditioning: Computing technology can be used positive reinforcement to shape complex behaviour or transform existing behaviour into habits.
  4. Principle of Cause and Effect: Simulations can persuade people to change their attitudes or behaviour by allowing them to immediately see the link between the cause and effect of their behaviour.
  5. Principle of Rehearsal: By providing a motivating, simulated environment in which to rehearse behaviour, you help people to change attitudes and behaviour in the real world.
  6. Principle of Virtual Rewards: Computer simulations that reward target behaviour in a virtual world, such as giving virtual rewards for safety behaviour, can influence people to perform the target behaviour more frequently and effectively in the real world.
  7. Principle of Trustworthiness: Computing technology that is viewed as trustworthy (truthful, fair, and unbiased) will have increased powers of persuasion.
Source: Stanford University researchers Fogg et al. 2003.


The intersection of persuasive technologies and mining health and safety is currently being researched by scientists at Laurentian University at the new Centre for Research in Occupational Safety and Health (CROSH). Producing evidence for the efficacy of health and safety interventions, and providing new and powerful tools to mining health and safety managers, are just two examples of what they hope to achieve with their research. 

This is only a brief description of the advantages and considerations that may be involved when health and safety managers begin to apply techniques of persuasive social media and persuasive interactive technology to enhance their work. A solid examination of health and safety interventions through interactive persuasive technologies, especially in the area of ergonomics and human factors, will have an important influence on the reduction of error and incidents among workers and on all levels of the profession.


AJ Boulay is a Graduate Researcher with the Computer-Human Interaction Lab at Laurentian (CHILL) in the Department of Computer Science and at the Centre for Research in Occupational Safety and Health at Laurentian University in Sudbury. aj_boulay@laurentian.ca.


Denby, B., Schofield D. and McCLarnon, D., (1995), “The use of virtual reality and computer graphics in mining engineering” Luxenberg: European Coal and Steel Community, Ergonomics Action Bulletin. 32, Some researchers believe (online link?) 1-6.

Fogg, B.J. Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do, pp. 255-259, 2003, Morgan Kauffman, Boston

Simpson, G., Horberry, T., Joy, J., Understanding Human Error in Mine Safety, 2009, Ashgate Publishing Limited Burlington

Centre for Research in Occupational Safety and Health

PowerPoint presentation Persuasive Social Networks in Mining Health and Safety by AJ Boulay, Graduate Researcher, Laurentian University, Department of Computer Science HCI Research Group