Littering and Site Housekeeping… Or, Why Are We Slobs?

An experienced HSE auditor can visit an industrial or commercial facility and within the first few minutes come to a reasonable conclusion as to whether or not he or she might expect to find significant HSE issues at that particular site.  A site that is well organized and free of clutter, debris and litter inevitably is well managed and has a workforce that is respectful of HSE needs.   Such sites typically have considerably fewer HSE issues than one with poor housekeeping. Unfortunately, examples of facilities with good housekeeping are the exception rather than the norm across much of Asia and indeed most of the developing world.

As one who travels extensively for business, it seems to me that there is likely a strong correlation between site housekeeping practices and littering behavior, i.e., countries with high rates of littering also tend to have industrial and commercial facilities with poor housekeeping.

In this blog post, I explore the issue of housekeeping and littering and offer suggestions for the HSE professional for implementing more effective housekeeping programs at their site.

The Case for Good Housekeeping

As we might expect, many studies have been published on the relationship between housekeeping and safety performance and the quantifiable positive benefits of a properly maintained site, e.g.:

  • Swat (1997)1 studied accidents at industrial plants in Poland and reported that over a three-year period “at least 45.8% of the accidents studied involved violation of the fundamental principles of housekeeping.”
  • Scott et al (2005)2 carried out a literature review of 932 articles dating from 1962 and concluded that “these studies appear to demonstrate that good housekeeping practice is a sound method for reducing STF hazards and consequently reduce STF injuries. Good housekeeping has additional, positive knock-on effects such as increased production and enhanced company image, and is a good method for getting the workforce involved in safety issues.”
  • Agwu and Ajayi (2014)3 studied trips and falls at a liquefied natural gas project in Nigeria and concluded that “the results indicated that implementation of good housekeeping programme to a large extent eliminated workplace clutter and reduced STF accident rate… The study therefore recommends among others: management leadership and commitment on good housekeeping, regular housekeeping audits, regular training of employees on good housekeeping techniques, introduction of good housekeeping incentives and encouragement of good housekeeping culture among the workforce.”

With or without academic evidence, I suspect that we are all likely to conclude that a properly maintained site has multiple benefits.  It also seems to me that the effort needed to maintain a site in good condition is not all that much different from not doing so.

If that is the case, then why then do we see so many examples of poor housekeeping?  Might there be a relationship to littering?  And, more specifically, might this be a behavioral issue that can be modified?  Let’s explore these questions, starting with a brief review of academic research related to littering behaviour.

Littering Behaviour (Why are We Slobs?)

I personally cannot litter.  I am also confused whenever I see someone doing so as I cannot envisage any benefit to be gained from this act.   Others, however, have studied littering behaviour extensively, and their studies provide insight into why we litter, for instance:

  • Al-Khatiba et al (2009)4 studied littering in Nabulus, Palestine and found that gender, income, marital status, and religious conviction affected residents’ attitudes, practices, and behavior regarding street litter generation.
  • Ajaegbo et al (2012)5 reported on littering attitude in urban areas of Nigeria and found that “attitude towards littering is affected by place of residence, age, and educational status… Lack of concern was found to be a significant factors contributing to negative littering attitudes. The conclusion is that littering is a community problem.
  • Bateson (2013)6 evaluated the psychology of littering of university students in the UK and reported that the presence of litter on the ground increased littering; images of watching eyes reduced littering.
  • Passafaro et al (2015)7 studied littering behavior in Italy and concluded that people consider that “littering can be justifiable when the streets are already dirty, when someone will clean up anyway or when trash bins are unavailable.”

So, it seems that littering behavior is based on a number of personal, socio-economic and cultural factors.  If you are raised in a culture where littering is prevalent, then you are also likely to be less hesitant to litter.  Of particular relevance to the HSE manager who is struggling to maintain an orderly site are the observations that littering behaviour can be changed with appropriate measures.

How to Improve Housekeeping

To me it seems obvious that the effort needed to maintain a site in good condition is not all that much different from not doing so.  Given the clear benefits to everyone – employees and employers alike – striving for good housekeeping at your place of work seems like a “no-brainer”.

Why then is this not done?  Is it because we are simply slobs?  Or, is because we as HSE managers are not giving our workers the right message?

I tend to believe it is the latter.  I am certainly no expert on behavioral modification.  Fortunately, others are and have published their experiences so we can learn from them:

  • Näsänen and Sarri (1989)8 observed that behaviour modification, by providing positive feedback, has been successful in changing many types of behaviour and that many experiments have yielded good results in reinforcing safe behaviour. They examined the impact of positive feedback for improving order and cleanliness in a production hall at a shipyard and found that the housekeeping standard improved quickly and the new standard was maintained throughout the follow-up year.  Most importantly accidents were also reduced considerably.
  • Oxenburgh (1991)9 stressed that improved housekeeping is an important work organization issue, because it requires the cooperation and coordination of all subcontractors on the site. Superintendents must make clear that each subcontractor is responsible for its own housekeeping to avoid creating a hazard for others. Sometimes they take on more responsibility and develop joint clean-up crews to organize housekeeping on a site-wide basis.
  • Sarri (1999)10 describes the Tutava process for improving workplace housekeeping. Tuttava is an acronym coming from Finnish words which mean “safely productive work habits.” Tuttava is a method for initiating the change toward a better workplace and has the following distinctive characteristics:
    • it affects all kinds of health and safety factors, including ergonomics
    • it also helps improve quality and production
    • it is a model for participatory improvement
    • its main principle is to keep the process positive
    • using a positive approach, it initiates small changes which then reinforce further improvements

OK, so what can we take from all of these academic papers?

I certainly do not claim to be an expert in this field.  But based on the academic research, it seems to me that some reasonable suggestions include:

  1. First clearly understand what is meant by good housekeeping.  Good housekeeping entails both (1) housecleaning (day-to-day clean-up, waste disposal, removal of unused materials and inspections to ensure that clean-up is complete) and (2) reflects the quality of management and production processes at the workplace; the flow of materials and the use of tools are in close relation to these processes. (This is an aspect that is often ignored and the one focused on in the Tuttava method).
  2. Make sure that you have adequate numbers and types of garbage bins on site. Workers are less likely to litter if they have ready access to a garbage bin.
  3. Provide training and information to workers on both the benefit of housecleaning and the orderliness of materials and tools.
  4. Follow some sort of behavioural modification approach (e.g., Tuttava method) based on identification of improvement goals, performance measurements, positive feedback, observe conditions instead of behaviours, etc.

This will take some effort and will of course require organizational buy-in, but the benefits are clearly positive.

I am interested in your experiences, both positive and negative, with respect to site housekeeping efforts.  This is an important and too often ignored topic and we can all learn from each other.

Thanks for reading.  Keep safe.  Be healthy.  Respect your environment.


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Next Week’s Blog Topic: Fakes and Worker Health and Safety – A Hidden Killer

Photo Credits:  Litter image photo courtesy of and copyright Merelize  at Free Range Stock, www.freerangestock.com

  1. Swat K. 1997. Monitoring of Accidents and Risk Events in Industrial Plants. J Occup Health. 39: 100–104
  2. Scott A., R. Lee and R. Snodgrass. 2005.  Attitudes and Behaviours towards Slips, Trips and Falls – A Literature Review. HSL/2006/70. 13 pp.
  3. Agwu M.O. and S.O. Ajayi. 2014. Good Housekeeping – A Panacea for Slips, Trips & Falls Accident in the NLNG Project, Bonny. Int. J. Bus. Admin. 5(4)12-20.
  4. Al-Khatiba, H.A. Arafatb, R. Daoudc and H. Shwahnehc. 2009.  Enhanced solid waste management by understanding the effects of gender, income, marital status, and religious convictions on attitudes and practices related to street littering in Nabulus – Palestinian territory. Waste Manag. 29(1):449-455.
  5. Ajaebo E., S.I. Dashit and A.T. Akume. 2012.  The determinants of littering attitude in urban neighborhoods of Jos.  JORIND 10(3):83-94.
  6. Bateson M, Callow L, Holmes JR, Redmond Roche ML, Nettle D (2013) Do Images of ‘Watching Eyes’ Induce Behaviour That Is More Pro-Socialor More Normative? A Field Experiment on Littering. PLoS ONE 8(12): e82055. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0082055
  7. Passafaro P., F. Maricchiolo, A. Angelici, V. Ciaraldi,  S. Giannetti, S. Ludovici, M. Lungo, M. Marra,  F.  Piselli and S. Rosana. 2015. A beliefs-based measure of attitudes towards urban littering.  App. Psychol. Bull. 274: 15-22. 
  8. Näsänen M. and J. Saari. 1987. The effects of positive feedback on housekeeping and accidents at a shipyard.  J. Occup. Accid.  8:237-250
  9. Oxenburgh, M: Increasing Productivity and Profit through Health and Safety, CCH International, Chicago 309 pgs., 1991.
  10. Saari J. 1999.  Tuttava: A Participatory Method to Improve Ergonomics and Safety Through Better Housekeeping in Occupational Ergonomics.  In: Occupational Ergonomics: Design and Management of Work Systems. Karwoski and Marras (Ed). CRC Press
Randall D. Shaw, Ph.D.
Managing Director at Redlog Environmental Ltd.
Dr. Randall Shaw is Managing Director of Redlog Environmental Ltd. He has a wide-ranging background in health, safety and environment, with a focus on those HSE issues faced by industry in Asia. Dr. Shaw’s blog posts on HSE issues in Asia are based on his experience from working in more than 30 countries, his pragmatic approach to solving HSE problems, and his desire to pass on this knowledge to others. Ultimately, his goal is to help HSE professionals and companies active in the developing world tackle their HSE issues. You can find him on Twitter (@RedlogHSE) and LinkedIn and he is always keen to discuss HSE issues with others.
Posted in Asia, Environment, HSE and tagged , , .

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing. We are also implementing a housekeeping campaign at our site recently and this article offers me more insight.

    • Rickey, Glad to hear this post is relevant to you and good luck with your campaign. Please give us an update in the future as to how the housekeeping campaign worked out and any hints that may be useful to others. Regards.

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