4 “human factors” that lead to unnecessary risks

by on March 10, 2011 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Workplace Safety Network

When do well-trained and safety-conscious workers cause accidents? Often, it’s because the worker’s “human” tendencies contradict the job requirements.

That’s according to a recent report by a British oil and gas exploration association, “Human Factors: How to Take the First Steps.” The association studied numerous accidents and found that, despite the best intentions of both workers and companies, accidents occurred because of “human factors” like these four examples:

1. Workers will work with what they’ve got
A worker on a drilling platform accidentally entered an area where he was exposed to an overhead hazard – an operator had raised a section of drill pipe held in place with a manual brake.

To warn the worker to get out of the area, the operator had to use his left knee to open the microphone, his right foot to operate the brake, and both hands to work the controls and maneuver the pipe.

Unfortunately, while talking, he eased up on the brake, and the pipe section crashed down, barely missing the worker.

Human factors: The operator worked with whatever he had, including a system that required the use of all four limbs at the same time. That’s too complicated, but workers prided themselves on being able to manage its complexity – until it became too difficult in this instance.

Fix: Take a second look at something that’s so complex or hard to do that workers take pride in telling stories about it. It could be justifiable pride in accomplishment. Or, as in this case, the system could be just too complex to work safely in the long run.

2. Good people make mistakes – especially when interrupted
A veteran electrician was charged with isolating one of two gas turbines. He correctly identified all the isolation points and began the job.

A few minutes later, he heard his name called over the PA system, asking him to go to the kitchen. He ignored the call because of the importance and complexity of the work he was doing.

The PA announced his name again, insisting it was urgent. The electrician reluctantly went to the kitchen, where a senior worker complained to him that the refrigerator fuse had blown.

The electrician, angry at the interruption, returned to his turbine task – and proceeded to isolate the wrong turbine. Luckily, no one was hurt.

Human factors: The electrician thought the interruption was dumb, and anger probably led to his error on this complex task. Strong emotions can cloud the thinking and judgment of even the best people.

Fix: Remind experienced workers that the most likely way they’ll get hurt is through someone else’s actions – so they need to keep their own safety in mind by holding their emotions in check. In addition, a reporting system that clearly defined a true emergency and established priorities would have helped in this case. So would using two-way text messaging instead of a PA system.

3. People will fill in the gaps rather than ask questions
A work crew received an assignment to cut redundant steelwork out of an area along with a pre-work safety briefing. Unfortunately, the instructions were vague: “Cut all material in the area.”

Once at the site, they saw some taped pipe in the shape of a rectangle. They assumed they were supposed to cut out the rectangle.

However, the taping was meant to identify trip hazards. The crew learned that only after they cut into a live drain pipe. Again, the crew escaped injury.

Human factors: The big “A” – assumptions. The work order assumed the job was self-explanatory, the safety director assumed the tape obviously indicated a trip hazard, and the crew made a different assumption altogether.

Fix: Clear instructions. Conduct the pre-work safety briefing, if possible, at the work site. And here’s the hard part: A culture that encourages questions. Workers will “think they should know” the answer and be afraid to ask.

Institutionalize the “double-check” at your company: Tell workers to call and ask, “Just double-checking – we’re supposed to cut out this rectangle, right?” If they aren’t sure, they need to call. Nowadays, you can use a cell phone to take and send pictures, so workers can stay connected even at remote locations.

4. People will think knowledge of hazards will protect them
A worker crossed a scaffold barrier guarding a floor opening. He wanted to run a length of plastic pipe through a section of the barricaded area a few feet from the opening. He backed into the hole and was severely injured in a 35-foot fall.

Human factor: Figuring that as long as you knew the opening was there, you were safe. Understandable, but wrong.

Fix: Supervisors need to remind workers that you can’t concentrate on two things at once. One thing will give eventually, either the ability to concentrate on the task or the knowledge of the hazard. That’s why you stayout of forbidden areas.

Source: Step Change in Safety, “Human Factors,” http://bit.ly/gC6EjZ

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