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Faulty technology has had catastrophic consequences for UK sub-postmasters, and with AI set to play a significant part in health and safety, it’s fundamental we continue to acknowledge the human element, warns Kevin Barr.
In the ever-evolving landscape of technology, where our workplaces are increasingly intertwined with digital systems, the inherent risks become more pronounced with each technological hiccup. The recent Post Office Horizon incident serves as a glaring example of the potential catastrophic consequences when technology overshadows the essential human element in our systems.
It’s crucial to recognise that technology and AI were conceived and crafted by people, for the benefit of people. Their purpose was never to replace human intuition but to augment our capabilities, enhancing efficiency and productivity. The Post Office Horizon incident underscores the importance of retaining the key human elements — transparent communication, judgement, and oversight — in any system.
In our ever-growing reliance on technology, there’s a tendency to place unwavering trust in its capabilities. The Horizon incident vividly illustrates the repercussions of this blind trust. As the system faltered, trust in technology diminished, leading to a broader erosion of trust in leadership. The aftermath has left an indelible mark on the Post Office, raising questions about the future trajectory of its operations and the integrity of its systems.
As Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) professionals, we understand the value of being proactive and learning from mistakes. While we eagerly welcome the promises of technological advancements, we must approach them with open arms tempered by a risk control mindset. The Horizon incident provides us with valuable lessons to guide our path forward:
The breakdown in transparent communication during the Horizon incident showcases the critical importance of fostering open and honest lines of communication. Sub-postmasters reported faults in the system, but the Post Office ignored this, disregarding their concerns. Even when vital information reaches decision-makers promptly, transparent communication is essential to view mistakes openly and honestly, fostering a culture of accountability and continuous improvement.
The human element should always remain at the core of our safety systems. Embracing a human-centric approach means recognising the irreplaceable value of human judgement, intuition, and experience in complementing technological solutions. The Horizon incident, with its 12,000 communication failures annually, demonstrated the risks of sidelining the human factor. Technology should empower human decision-making, not replace it entirely.
The Horizon incident highlights the necessity of independent monitoring and auditing. OSH professionals should champion regular, impartial assessments of safety systems to identify potential pitfalls that internal reviews might overlook. Second Sight’s report, revealed the system’s faults, including outdated hardware and failures in tracking money from various transactions. External oversight ensures the reliability and integrity of technological systems.
Striking the right balance between technology and human judgement is imperative. Technology should empower human decision-making, not supplant it. OSH professionals play a pivotal role in advocating for systems that integrate seamlessly with human expertise. The Horizon incident exemplified the dangers of technology overshadowing human judgement, with the Post Office accusing sub-postmasters of theft instead of addressing system errors. A harmonious blend of technology and human judgement is key to achieving optimal safety outcomes.
A proactive response to concerns is key to preventing future disasters. OSH professionals must encourage organisations to establish robust mechanisms for reporting and addressing concerns promptly, fostering a culture of continuous improvement. The Horizon incident, where concerns were initially dismissed and an independent investigation was thwarted, underscores the importance of promptly addressing issues raised by employees. True leaders support, not hinder, the resolution of concerns, facilitating a swift and effective response to potential risks.
As we navigate the future, OSH professionals must ensure that technology serves as a valuable ally, not a silent overlord. Let us not be afraid to embrace innovation but understand its place—a tool to enhance, not replace, the indispensable role of people in creating safe and efficient workplaces. By learning from the Horizon incident, we can forge a future where technology and humanity coexist harmoniously, creating a safer, more resilient world for all.
Kevin Barr is Senior Data Centre Operations Health & Safety Manager, Telehouse Europe.