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October 27, 2014

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How do we reduce the human factor?

I have recently seen a rise in the number of incidents involving some questionable human behaviour. According to the HSE (in HSG48), 80% of incidents may be attributed to at least in part to human factors – the acts or omissions of people. For me, health and safety management fits simply into three P’s – People, Premises and Processes/ Procedures:




Premises & indeed Work Equipment needs to comply with the relevant statutory provisions- this is the easiest aspect of this relationship. It’s hard and fast. Is there a handrail on the stairs, is that change of level highlighted? Is the item of equipment guarded? Is the equipment serviced and maintained?

Processes and procedures are required by HSW 74 and a whole host of other Regulations (Policies & Risk Assessment). These processes are in their simplest form the correct way to undertaken a task or activity. They have been devised and agreed; again not difficult if the author of the process understands it & those carrying out the following the correct procedure! However the rogue element is the people, and more specifically their behaviour.

How does an employer affect his employee’s behaviour, and therefore the human factors of the incident? There are a number of ways:

  1. Through the Job Advert & Description & then at the interview stage; choosing the right candidate – who you know will accept the safety culture of your workplace is essential- do they have the right attitude?
  2. A thorough induction & an ongoing training programme throughout their employment; Skills can be taught
  3. Supervision, appraisals along with incident recording & investigation of tasks and activities – human behaviour has both strengths and weaknesses- otherwise we would all be robots
  4. Encouragement through a positive safety culture, the carrot rather than the stick of compliance, By ensuring that they buy in to how ‘things’ are done

But what causes that employee to misunderstand the risk of an activity and decide not to follow accepted procedure? To go off on a frolic of their own with the potential for the result to be a personal injury and/or premise and equipment damage?

Was it an obvious risk to them? Was there peer pressure not to comply? What stops some folks buying into the companies Safety Culture? Is it a case of a wrong decision & the wrong moment? Or failure to accept personal responsibility to make the right choice?

Was their decision-making clouded by something else? Do they think that health and safety precautions are there to hinder them & that they really know best?

Is the need to finish the task quicker an incentive, is the workplace time poor and therefore colleagues are always rushing? Had there been a number of near misses which the employee had failed to register and learn from?

The human element of Risk Assessment and Incident investigation will continue to intrigue many H&S professionals and can often be placed in the too difficult to deal with pile, but without considering this element Risk Assessments will neither be suitable nor sufficient. The challenge is to reduce the number of human factors that could potentially cause an incident in the workplace.

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Darren Sutton
Darren Sutton
9 years ago

Fabulous topic but I found this article to be way too generic and outdated. There are much more dynamic and imaginative ways of influencing behaviour these days! Cooper’s HSG48 is still a great start point and I’m often surprised by the lack of take up or understanding by many Safety Managers at all levels. People often summarise it as the “carrot and the stick” but it’s much more than that and that phrase alone is a misinterpretation of the Consequences! There are many other more powerful and effective principles of behavioural and cultural change that are successfully applied in sport,… Read more »

Sarah Daniels
Sarah Daniels
9 years ago

Darren -Thanks for the comments and for your tweeted thoughts today

Perhaps you can elaborate on your thoughts on this here?

Darren Sutton
Darren Sutton
9 years ago

ABC Analysis is a brilliant tool for analysing why people might perform a specific behaviour and that highlighting ways to modify the A’s (antecedents) and realign the C’s (Consequences). People often misinterpret the C’s though and using the phrase Carrot and Stick in this connect doesn’t help. The carrot is a metaphor for incentivisation, not genuine praise or Positive Reinforcement as Cooper calls it and the two things are hugely different consequences in terms of long lasting behavioural change. In fact, incentivisation very often leads to all sites of problems when used to influence any behaviour and especially when applied… Read more »

Sarah Daniels
Sarah Daniels
9 years ago

Darren – thank you for your comments – the blog was indeed meant to spark debate, and in the space needs to be generic!

I often find going back to basics and simple terms is the best bet.

Sometimes as practitioners we can can be very in the moment and others may need to catch up with that thinking

I find all employees and business owners fully understand the meaning of carrot and stick in discussions and that as I have said needs to be the starting point

Red Herring
Red Herring
9 years ago

People = employees, not employers? Condescending, blinkered, narrow minded, misguided – at best.