Managing human failure

24 June 2014

Rob Burgon, workplace safety manager at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), discusses how an individual's behaviour can affect health and safety in the workplace.

When it comes to health and safety at work, human factors - such as the working environment, organisational and job factors, and human and individual characteristics - can affect how a person behaves.

Everyone can make errors, regardless of how well trained and motivated they are but in the workplace, the consequences of such human failure can be severe.
With that in mind, it is essential that employers consider certain aspects when trying to manage human failure to avoid accidents and ill health at work. 
These are: the job, the individual and the organisation.
The job 
Let us first talk about the job. This includes areas such as the nature of the task, workload, working environment, the design of displays and controls, and the role of procedures.  
Employers should design tasks in accordance with ergonomic principles to take account of both human limitations and strengths. This includes matching the job to the physical and the mental strengths – such as perceptual, attentional and decision-making requirements - and limitations of workers. 
The individual 
When considering the individual, their competence, skills, personality, attitude, and risk perception, all come into play. Individual characteristics can influence behaviour in complex ways but certain characteristics such as skills and attitude can be changed and enhanced.
The environment
The working environment ( also plays a significant part in the behaviour of an individual or group. Factors such as work patterns, the culture of the workplace, resources, communications and leadership should also be considered.

So, what can we take from this? Firstly, that human factors not only concern the tasks that people are set but also who is doing the task, i.e. how competent and skilful they are at carrying it out, and the place in which they are working.
As all of these factors influence behaviour at work in a way which can affect health and safety, it is essential that human failures are managed to prevent major and occupational accidents, and ill health, all of which cost businesses money and their reputation. 
It is crucial to understand that human factors not only influence the safety culture of an individual, but also therefore affects the culture that exists within an organisation. Safety management systems should include human factors, which allow it to be examined in a similar way to any other risk control system.
The best way for businesses to achieve these goals is by having good technology together with a skilled workforce with staff placed in jobs suitable for their abilities.
Remember, successful businesses achieve high productivity and quality while ensuring health and safety.
The influence of biological, psychological and organisational factors on an individual at work can not only affect their personal health and safety, but also their efficiency and productivity. 
For example, someone is more likely to suffer injury if exerting a large proportion of their strength to complete a task and could possibly cause damage to the product and tools.
If the mental demands of a task are too high - i.e. if it involves diagnosing faults under significant time pressures - then there can be both a health issue for the employee but also a quality, and possibly safety issue for the production line, process and plant
Individuals have very limited scope for determining how to do their job, resulting in a lack of motivation and job satisfaction, causing them to be less effective at work.
As individuals have a wide range of abilities and limitations, a human factors (or Ergonomics) approach focuses on how to make the best use of these capabilities.
This is achieved by designing jobs and equipment which are fit for people, which not only improves their health and safety but often ensures a better managed more effective organisation and therefore a more profitable one.