EHS Skills 101: The Science of Employee Involvement-Why Does it Work?

shutterstock_400486630It has become a basic tenet of Safety Professionals that employee involvement is critical to program success.  The safety visionary Frank Bird was a very early proponent of employee involvement as a key to ownership of the safety process.  He discusses this very well in his classic book: Practical Loss Control Leadership.  I was recently putting a presentation together to speak at a national conference on the related topic of people focused safety and was doing background research.   My research led me to an excellent paper titled: The IKEA Effect: When Labor Leads to Love, by Michael Norton, Daniel Mochon and Dan Ariely.  The authors published their paper in 2011 and it received a fair amount of public attention.  NPR later featured it on an episode of their show titled Hidden Brain with Shankar Vedantam: Why You Love That IKEA Table, Even If It’s Crooked.  The research described in the paper sheds important light on why getting employees involved in the safety programs works to maximize safety results and how to effectively accomplish that involvement.  I made a mental note to blog about my findings here on  Today is the day!

“Labor alone can be sufficient to induce greater liking for the item on which the labor was applied”

I hope you take the time to read the paper.  For now I’ll get us started with this summary.  The authors of the IKEA Effect paper had developed a theory that labor alone can be sufficient to induce greater liking for the item on which the labor was applied.  They focused their research on IKEA’s buyer-assembled furniture as a receptacle for the subject’s labor.  Their theory is built on a large collection of research on the topic of “Effort Justification”, which emanates out of Leon Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance theory outlined in his 1957 book: A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance.  Effort Justification is the process by which people tend to attribute a greater value (greater than the objective value) to an outcome they had to put effort into acquiring or achieving.  Norton, et al. used the name IKEA Effect for the influencing of value from invested labor.  They experimented to prove this theory by having test subjects put together various items (such as IKEA furniture) and then queried them to see what monetary value they placed on the objects they assembled versus those assembled by others, including professionals.  The outcome was that the subjects valued items they had invested effort into between 2 and 5 times more.  The authors also conducted experiments to determine what role successful completion of the tasks had in determining the subjects valuation of these items.  The outcome of this phase of the experiment was that uncompleted items did not receive the IKEA Effect valuations from their builders.  The values were equal to unassembled items.

“Employee involvement is a powerful lever we can use to induce employees to feel ownership and commitment to an EHS program element”

What are the implications of these findings for EHS Professionals?  First, employee involvement is a powerful lever we can use to induce employees to feel ownership and commitment to an EHS program element they have invested effort in.  This drives up significantly the chances of those employees consistently executing the requirements of the element and of promoting it to others.  Second, it is important to secure quick wins in the project they are participating in.  The research above strongly supports the fact that a successful outcome of the employees efforts activates them to place considerably higher value on the element.  The IKEA Effect authors themselves go on to suggest that this research is likely applicable to employees perceptions of job satisfaction as well.

There is a vast number of potential areas and tasks that employees can participate in regarding the EHS process for a facility.  You are limited only by your team’s own imagination and the work site culture!  Some examples of meaningful employee involvement are:

  • Participating on EHS committees
  • Recommending safety and health policy
  • Conducting inspections and audits
  • Creating employee awareness
  • Coordinating safety training
  • Acting as an information resource
  • Forming sub-committees for special projects (such as machine guarding, ergonomics, incentive programs, etc.)
  • Conducting target inspections to verify safety systems
  • Correcting hazards
  • Developing safety and health programs
  • Participating in continuous improvement initiatives such as Kaizens

Right about now you might be thinking: “But how do I get my employees to participate in these activities?”  That is the right question to ask!  The answer is Leadership.  Now you must lead them to come together as a passionate, committed and action oriented team.  Fellow Safety Practitioner Eddie Greer has a succinct starter discussion of how to be a leader in this months Professional Safety (Dec 2016, p. 31).  For those without a subscription, a version of it is also available here.  As Eddie says, “step up and be a leader” to ensure success in your employee involvement processes.  For a more in-depth view of leadership development see my page on this blog: Leadership Development

The IKEA Effect is good news indeed for EHS Professionals.  We now have further scientific evidence regarding the value of our employee involvement concepts, which helps us demonstrate the value to our organizations decision makers.  The research also gives us a precise formula to assemble and conduct employee involvement activities that lead to the most significant employee ownership effect possible.


About Chet Brandon

I am a highly experienced Health, Safety and Environmental Professional for Fortune 500 Companies. I love the challenge of ensuring HSE excellence in process, manufacturing and other heavy industry settings. The connection of EHS to Sustainability is a fascinating subject for me. I believe that the future of industrial organizations depends on the adoption of sustainable practices.
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1 Response to EHS Skills 101: The Science of Employee Involvement-Why Does it Work?

  1. Randy Emert says:

    Great article Chet. I recognize some of the elements as we used them in our “Journey to Zero”. Employee involvement is such a key in a successful EHS process.

    Thank you for giving us the theory, but more importantly real life application.

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