Managing human factors: Where do we start?

Most of the time people get things right.  We plan to act in a certain way to get a particular outcome, and we get the outcome we want.  But every so often things go wrong.  We make mistakes.  We forget things.  We bend rules.  In most cases these behaviours have no negative result.  In hazardous industries however, these types of behaviours can result in disaster. 

Human factors are often cited as underlying causes of major accident events.  Even smaller scale workplace incidents share these causal factors.  All too often, organisations believe that human failure is too difficult to manage.  With this belief, many organisations do not take the time to fully understand and address the underlying causes of these failures. So if they are going to improve, where do they start?

To increase human reliability, it is often said “you cannot change the human condition, but you can change the conditions under which humans work”.  In the UK, the government health and safety regulator, the Health and Safety Executive, has provided a working definition of the human factors domain.  It has identified the key issues that are often mismanaged or found wanting, based on investigation findings, audits and inspections in hazardous industries.  Successful managers, supervisors, engineers, and safety practitioners in hazardous industries must have a working knowledge of these subjects.

Organisations often realise the need to focus on human factors through experience of incidents and near misses.  When starting to explore the human factors subject area, many feel overwhelmed.  Using a topic-based approach can help to identify priorities and develop a manageable plan.  For example, organisations can:

  • assess their current human factors capability against the key topics, and focus on areas of vulnerability;
  • educate key people about human factors, who can then use this knowledge to improve performance;
  • build human factors knowledge and capability into operational, HSE and HR management systems and practices;
  • recognise that forthcoming organisational or technical change provides an opportunity to improve safety by additional focus on human factors (for example control room redesign);
  • recruit or develop internal human factors specialists, who can translate human factors knowledge into operational reality, rather than relying excessively on external specialists; and
  • ensure that when incidents occur, the underlying human factors are recognised and addressed, and subsequently built into the hazard and risk analysis process, and the management of new projects.

It may be helpful to start with one human factors topic that is salient for the organisation, and this usually brings other relevant topics into focus. What matters is getting started, rather than spending undue amounts of time identifying ‘the’ issue. 

The Keil Centre provides bespoke support in developing human factors strategy, including methods of identifying areas for improvement, targeted recommendations for specific topics, and general human factors awareness training. For further information please contact enquiries@keilcentre.co.uk (UK) or enquiries@keilcentre.com.au (Australia).

 

Extract of this Keil Centre article originally published in OHS Professional magazine by the Safety Institute of Australia.

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