Assistant Editor , SHP

April 17, 2024

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Marcin Nazaruk: ‘Conditions that will create our next accident exist today’

We speak to Marcin Nazaruk, Founder of Psychology Applied and winner of SHP’s 2023 Trailblazer award, ahead of his session at this year’s EHS Congress taking place between 22-24 May in Berlin. 

SHP: Hi Marcin, looking forward to your talk at EHS Congress this year, which will focus on integrating learning from normal work into existing processes. Could you tell us more?

Marcin Nazaruk

Marcin Nazaruk (MN): Absolutely. First, let’s clarify ‘normal work’ and what it means to learn from it. Normal work describes how people adapt to changing conditions and challenges as part of their job.

Think of a crane operator lifting a load – each time they do it, there might be slight variations: less time, more people in the area, a missing tool, etc. They constantly adapt to overcome these challenges, and that’s normal work.

Learning from normal work is about proactively searching for the aspects of work that make it difficult and increase the chances of human error or non-compliance. The conditions that will create our next accident exist today – we can find and address them before it’s too late.

SHP: How can this process of learning from normal work be implemented?

MN: It can be a separate initiative, that requires a mindset shift and using tools like walk-through / talk-through, or learning teams. It can also be integrated into existing processes.

SHP: Can we integrate it with behavioural observations, for example?

MN: Definitely. Typical behavioural observation programs focus on observing safe or unsafe behaviours and providing feedback to the workers. However, a growing number of organisations are dissatisfied with the results. Learning from normal work provides a research-backed methodology to reimagine these programs.

First, we help companies understand that what they label as unsafe acts are often adaptations to situational constraints. From there, we teach how to ask questions about these constraints, using specific questioning techniques, like focusing on the advantages of seemingly unsafe behaviours.

We also update templates, data collection, and KPIs. This helps companies modernise their existing programs to benefit from new ways of thinking about safety and start capturing issues that were not visible to the management.

Further reading: Trailblazer in Health & Safety Winner: Dr Marcin Nazaruk on how to apply LFNW in practice

SHP: How can learning from normal work be integrated with risk assessments?

MN: Typical risk assessments tend to be done by a specialist, often in isolation, focusing mainly on identifying hazards and appropriate controls. This assessment is then given to the worker. Learning from normal work recognises that hazards aren’t the only factor affecting risk. There are ‘error traps’ – things like outdated procedures or when things look similar – that can influence behaviour and increase risk, but aren’t typically included in risk assessments.

Secondly, learning from normal work recognises that error traps are dynamic. We need insights from workers to understand this aspect of risk. For example, if workers lack the right tools, they’ll adapt, and that may increase risk. Integrating learning from normal work with risk assessment means focusing on identifying error traps in addition to hazards, and addressing them through a deeper dialogue with the workers.

I have written a new industry guide for the Energy Institute that will be published later this year showing how to integrate error traps into the risk assessment process and how to teach workers identifying error traps and operational dilemmas.

SHP: What about leadership conversations?

MN: Leaders in large organisations often struggle with workplace visits and asking the right questions. Conversations become awkward or overly focused on compliance checks. Learning from normal work offers a fresh approach for leaders to build trust and have conversations about challenges, adaptations, and even non-compliance.

This provides leaders with insights into real operational problems they haven’t seen before, allowing them to address them.

SHP: And can this proactive learning be integrated with accident investigations?

MN: It might be surprising, but accidents are rare outcomes of how people adapt during normal work to various constraints. While learning from normal work emphasises proactive identification of incident precursors, its tools and techniques can also be applied to accident investigations.

Instead of just exploring why an incident happened, we can investigate how a similar outcome could happen under different circumstances. We can go beyond root causes and understand the range of constraints, dependencies, and organisational factors that contributed to the incident – things traditional root cause analysis tools do not cover.

SHP: Finally, what are you most looking forward to at EHS Congress this year?

MN: Fantastic speakers, interacting with participants, running my workshop on examples of integration, and simply enjoying the shared experience!

To find out more about EHS Congress 2024, click here. 

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