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Use Emotions To Change Behavior

Even a casual mention of 9/11 and each of us will remember specific details about where we were and what we were doing when America was attacked in 2001.


Even a casual mention of 9/11 and each of us will remember specific details about where we were and what we were doing when America was attacked in 2001. Likewise, many of us retain an indelible mental imprint of workplace tragedies we've witnessed or investigated.

That emotional link can have a profound effect on our behaviors. There can be both positive and negative effects. Despite the statistical evidence, some people still refuse to use seat belts for fear of being trapped in a burning (or sinking) vehicle. Others, having seen the outcome of a fall, become firm advocates of fall-arrest equipment. How can we leverage this emotional effect to a safety advantage?

UNDERSTANDING THE ROLE of emotions is critical to generating a lasting effect on behavior. Actually tapping those emotions is the first step. A graphic representation, or even a well-told story will place the recipient in the shoes of the victim. When we see images from 9/11, we can place ourselves at the scene. We feel the pain of the victims' burns; we envision the collapse of the building around us; and we sense the fear, horror and panic.

For years, The Mine Safety and Health Administration has produced Fatalgrams as a training tool for accident prevention. Are we using these effectively? Does MSHA produce them in a manner that helps elicit that emotional reaction?

There were two images from a Fatalgram worth considering. One was an illustration depicting a man falling in a hopper full of material. Another was a photograph of gap in suspended flooring that created a fall hazard.

The drawing allows you to place yourself in the shoes of the worker. You feel the emotions of helplessness and doom. Digital photography is great for documenting an investigation, but the drawing puts me there.

To elicit a more thorough emotional response, we must create the story in the minds of the audience. The Fatalgrams give us little to work with emotionally, but asking what happened will get the process rolling. Experienced hands will develop the scenario beyond the brief MSHA description. It may not be totally accurate, but will likely contain the essentials. Ask how they would feel in that situation. This helps develop that mental picture. Next, ask why this happened. The answers will likely reveal concerns about your operation, processes, procedures and safeguards. The why provides an opportunity for introspection. Finally, ask what were the results. We know that a miner died, but consider the miner's family and community. Who else suffered?

We've used Fatalgrams. We've all seen the high-impact videos and heard impassioned lectures. We may have even committed ourselves to a behavior change. Studies have shown that the emotional effect on behavior is fleeting. An emotional and graphic experience of the dangers of cigarette smoking may have a short-term positive effect, but without reinforcement, permanent behavior change is unlikely. There are just too many inherent rewards to the undesired behavior, and they occur too frequently.

THE EMOTIONAL LINK must be reinforced, but not with repeated emotional exposure. The effect will be diminished if applied too frequently. However, based on the emotional experience, a structured commitment can be made to change ó not just behaviors, but new personal protective equipment, modified access, added training, or a change in procedures. Those changes can be monitored and the benefit of the emotion can be reinforced regularly. Apply principles of accountability by committing to a change and seeing it through.

Like many effective safety techniques, use emotions sparingly and not traumatically. Know the emotional limits of your audience. Part of the effect comes from the situation being extraordinary. When the extraordinary becomes ordinary, the emotional power is lost.


Randy K. Logsdon, CMSP, is manager of safety for Intrepid Potash New Mexico operations. He has practiced safety on both the coal and metal/non-metal side of mining for more than 30 years. Randy is a Certified Mine Safety Professional. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.