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Risk Management Bulletin


By December 1, 2010No Comments

You can look at human errors that lead to workplace accidents in one of two ways, says psychology professor Dr. James Reason: The person approach focuses on the errors of individuals, blaming them for forgetfulness, inattention, or moral weakness. This analysis ignores the fact that mishaps tend to fall into recurrent patterns, with the same set of circumstances leading to similar mistakes, regardless of the people involved. The system approach concentrates on the conditions under which individuals work and tries to build defenses to avert errors or mitigate their effects. This approach recognizes that even in the most safety-conscious workplaces fallible humans will commit errors that originate in the conditions under which they work.

Safety consultant Dr. Dan Petersen identifies three categories of human error:

  1. Overload. “The human being cannot help but err if given a heavier workload than they have the capacity to handle,” says Petersen. Load involves physical, physiological, or psychological capacity, state of mind, level of knowledge and skill relevant to the task, and any reduction in capability from drug or alcohol use, pressure, fatigue, etc. Other contributing factors include work environment, motivation, attitude, and personal problems.
  2. The decision to err. Among reasons workers might choose an unsafe act are such factors as pressure to produce from peers and management that make unsafe behavior seem preferable. Errors also arise from “low perceived probability,” which means the worker simply does not believe that they will suffer an accident.
  3. Traps left for the worker. Some workers err because the work environment is incompatible with their physique or with what they’re used to – in other words, a bad fit. Another such trap is workplace design that contributes to human error, such as hard-to-read controls or a workstation that’s cramped, dark, or otherwise ergonomically unfriendly. Workplace culture can also serve as a trap by reinforcing or discouraging certain behaviors. For example, does the culture encourage workers to report signs of ergonomic distress early on, or does it reward them for hiding symptoms?

You might not be able to eliminate human fallibility from the workplace. However, you can certainly minimize the impact of worker errors by providing frequent safety training that targets specific hazards, heightens awareness, and explains systems and procedures designed to prevent accidents.