The work done by the Center for Behavioral Science in the last several years has garnered some of the most dramatic results in the field of safety research. Simply put, the Center for Behavioral Science studies the impact of behavioral, cognitive, and organizational factors in workplace injuries and highway collisions. Put even more simply, it analyzes how people behave: Do they comprehend warning signals? Understand if they’re distracted (or not) if they’re driving and texting or driving and talking on a cell phone? Realize that no matter how expensive their ergonomic chair is, it’s not going to work if they don’t know how to use it? Our recent interview with Marvin Dainoff, Ph.D., CPE, and the Director of the Center for Behavioral Science shed some light on the cutting-edge work going on at Liberty Mutual’s Research Institute for Safety.
What are the most exciting things the Center for Behavioral Sciences has uncovered in the last year?
The most newsworthy thing is our take on distracted driving. We’re taking the research a little further, by showing that not only are people distracted, they don’t know how distracted they are; or worse, they don’t believe it.
Consistent studies show that when you’re engaged in a cell phone conversation, you think that it’s taking less effort than it does, and you think you’re driving better than you are. We are conducting multiple studies to show the effects in different ways.
Of course, lots of people are studying driver distraction. There’s no question that it causes your attention to drift. The difference in our research is that we’re focusing on the subjective — the perception that they don’t believe they are distracted.
For instance, in a field test, you drive them around a track, and you give the subject things to do on a display panel [which looks like an enlarged GPS screen]. We have them do several cycles on the track, which is configured so there are some easier stretches and some more difficult stretches. There’s even a stoplight you can run. You’re allowed to pull over to the side of the road to complete your task, but many don’t. There’s a slight amount of time pressure, but it’s not a race. We find that most people are oblivious to the workload; they don’t see a reason to postpone looking up a phone number on the screen because they’re on a curve in the road.
How does a project like this graduate to field testing?
Most of what we do starts with questionnaires, where we’re studying how people perceive their awareness. But the cell phone work, because of evolving technology, is ongoing. We call it the “problem of engagement.” Everything we have done up to this point is standard — calling, texting, looking up a number. But what do people do in the real world? What happens when they’re not just having a phone conversation, but they become very engaged in it? We’re trying to get a handle on that, to see how the level of engagement in the distracting task changes the level of distraction overall, and increases the risk of injury.
What about people who are, say, juggling a cheeseburger, a lipstick, the phone, and the steering wheel?
What you’re asking about hits on a buzz term that came out of the military, called “situational awareness.” It addresses the lack of calibration about distraction when you’re performing multiple tasks. All those tasks you just mentioned are optional — except holding the steering wheel. If you think of a fighter pilot in combat, they have to juggle multiple tasks, but they don’t have any choice. Then again, they’re highly trained.
How many kinds of tests might the Center for Behavioral Research be running on any given day?
I have five researchers. Within the same week, we might be testing out new equipment on the van we use on the track. We’re about to get a new high-end simulator, so that will let us test out different types of studies in the simulator before taking them to the van. It can be a logistical challenge. We also share the track with a training function, so when you come here you might find 18-wheelers going into skids [as part of the Skid School, which teaches those who train commercial vehicle drivers].
What’s with all the signs in here for things like hazardous waste and electrical dangers?
We have a cognitive lab where we’re studying the perception of warning signals. The problem is that there is no sort of standard way of warning people that’s based on human cognition. Signs are designed by designers, who decide, “This is my idea of what a carcinogen would look like.” We’re finding that if you want people to take signs seriously, you need to have some type of indoctrination, and we’re studying how to do that.
I read about a 15-day study which tested the effects on 22 ergonomics-trained women vs. non-trained women in mock office situations. What was the outcome?
We tried to make that study very realistic. We had two workstations — one with state-of-the-art equipment, the other with basic office equipment. We had them do similar work to what they’d be doing in real life, and we counted every keystroke and movement of the mouse. The state-of-the-art stations allowed them to position themselves however they wanted: working while standing, changing the height of the chair, their posture, and other things. The main variable was how well we trained them to use it. That turns out to be crucial. If you give people a complicated chair and work station, you have to give them a rationale to use it, and directions. I have a 25-year paper trail working with this topic, and I always end up saying the same thing. The point is to adapt the various shapes and sizes of equipment to the various tasks they’re supposed to do. The problem may be that it’s furniture — and people aren’t used to thinking of furniture as a tool. The work we’ve just finished is a long line of research that shows you need an integrated program of good equipment, and training.
Is it enough to read the directions on ergonomic furniture or other equipment, or should you have additional help?
Ironically, if you buy a Microsoft keyboard and you bother to look in the stuff that comes with it, there’s a whole course on ergonomics. This stuff is around.
Is there anything you’re working on now that hasn’t yet been published that you can share?
Particularly with what’s going on with BP right now, we’re concerned with a concept called “safety climate.” It sounds like “safety culture,” but it’s not the same. It’s your perception of how concerned your management is about safe operation, and it’s one of the biggest predictors of accident rates. In fact, we’re trying to measure that climate in nine different trucking companies by doing a major field study, interviewing 8,000 people about their perception of how concerned their companies are about safety. We’re currently going through the results of that initial data.