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The Human Factor in Safety and Operations

The Human Factor in Safety and Operations

How to change instinctive and habitual at-risk behavior in the workplace.

Despite stringent regulations, advanced process automation, safety management systems and the well-intentioned efforts of investigations, work accidents still happen at many facilities.

But the individual is rarely solely responsible and the incident hardly ever isolated because humans aren't perfect. And facilities not only are operated by humans, they also are designed, built and maintained by them. This provides ample opportunity for people to contribute to incidents.

That is why technical solutions, business models, corporate strategy, rules and regulations may help a business improve its safety and operational performance, but rarely are enough. Fully understanding the many roles humans play at facilities and the factors that influence their decision-making therefore is vital to preventing incidents and to achieving operational excellence – minimizing risk, eliminating defects and maximizing value creation.

Reviewing incident reports reveals that there is a long history of human factors causing incidents. While the phrase "human factors" often is used to describe the interaction of individuals with each other, with equipment and facilities and with management systems, it also is used to describe how such interactions are influenced by a work environment and culture. Understanding and improving human factors' impact on incidents requires a focus on people's inherent behaviors, characteristics, needs, abilities and limitations, as well as the development of sustainable and safe working cultures. Gaining a comprehensive understanding of the root causes of incidents and addressing them holistically is key to effectively preventing them.

In order to achieve a step change in safety, we therefore have to go beyond the traditional safety management approach. Many at-risk behaviors occur intuitively and are the result of experientially-based feelings associated with anticipated outcomes. The key to advancing the effectiveness of safety management practices involves a better understanding of motivational factors and their impact on decision-making.

The Effect of Feelings and Emotions on Behavior

There now is a growing body of research reinforced through recent advances in neuroscience that sheds new light on human behavior. Feelings and emotions as a primary source of motivation appear to be of increasing importance, a revelation that could offer new insight into why we don't always follow the rules and may act irrationally. Applied to the workplace, this notion suggests how employees feel about a situation may be more representative of subsequent behaviors than what they actually think.

The notion of a two-track mind – one part logical and rational, the other intuitive and automatic – is not new. Its systematic application to the practice of safety, however, is novel and could hold the answer to some of our biggest challenges. The basis of most defined safety practices is logic-oriented. The basis of most human behavior, on the other hand, is not. Most behaviors are intuitive, occurring automatically, and are the result of our affective response, or gut feeling, to a situation.

To better understand how feelings associated with a set of circumstances can dictate the most likely courses of action, let's look at several important factors. As humans, we live in an environment that is ever changing. We constantly process information and monitor situations for potential risks or rewards, experienced intuitively as feelings and even emotions. By our very nature, we are extremely efficient at managing this enormous amount of information. So, how do we determine what remains below the threshold of our awareness and what gets flagged for further attention and processing? It's a filtration process, largely influenced by past experience.

Experience-Based, Risky Behavior

The role of experience is key to understanding why many at-risk behaviors occur and what can be done about them. Consider for a moment the typical behavior of a driver on a highway. Many will set cruise control speeds slightly above posted speed limits. The balance between traveling at a faster speed for an anticipated benefit and the possible cost of going too fast and getting a speeding ticket heavily is influenced by past experience.

This process occurs intuitively and automatically and doesn't involve analytical risk assessments supported by data. Each time the benefit is realized without a negative consequence, the behavior becomes more habitual and more automatic. Experientially-based at-risk behaviors driven by anticipated gains that outweigh any perceived costs are not limited to highways or to drivers, of course. They occur all too often in the workplace, too.

A study conducted by T. Dell and J. Berkhout found that injuries were 88 percent more likely to occur in a perceived safe job, compared to those regarded as the most dangerous. This data is supported by anecdotal evidence at a number of organizations where perceived low-risk tasks typically involve the highest frequency of injury. Secondly, when people make repeated choices that involve at-risk behavior but experience first-hand benefits aligned with anticipated outcomes, they tend to underestimate the actual risks. Finally, if there is a conflict between intuition and our rational system, our experientially-based intuitive response appears to have the strongest influence on decisions and subsequent actions.

This explains in part why words and data may have very little influence on someone's behavior. Labelling a behavior as unsafe when it has been performed hundreds or even thousands of times before without negative consequence is more than a challenge. If the behavior was associated with a forecast benefit that was realized, you are now at odds with actual experience, a hurdle logic and reason alone will have limited success of overcoming.

Influencing At-Risk Behavior

While experience may be the driving factor behind most at-risk behaviors, it also is the key to overcoming them. Although logic and reason are influenced by words, data and analytical comparisons, our intuitive system is not. To effectively influence behaviors you must employ images, emotions, personal stories and experiential techniques that connect with your workforce and move them.

One industry that has embraced experiential techniques to improve on-the-job safety performance is commercial aviation. Despite numerous efforts to improve pilot performance, crashes due to pilot error remained at 65 percent for more than 50 years. That changed in 1990 when the industry introduced flight simulators for pilot training, a tool designed to provide experiential learning in a safe and controlled setting. Since then, crashes due to pilot error have declined by more than 54 percent. The field stands alone with six sigma operational performance, demonstrating fewer than 3.4 defects per 1 million opportunities.

The next frontier for the practice of safety involves the practical application of affective-based research to address some of the biggest safety challenges. Within this research is a wealth of information on more effective communication using techniques that inspire and influence and not just inform; characterized by, but not limited to, a foundation in sound management practices and driven by leaders who rely on influence, not just edict, to reduce at-risk behaviors and improve operational performance.

"The true test of a man's character is what he does when no one is watching," American basketball coach John Wooden said. It is a truth that companies face every day. Organizations cannot monitor the employees in their facilities around the clock. Even if they could, supervision is not as good a driver of performance – safety or operational performance – as changing habitual and instinctive behavior from the outset.

David Mallard is a senior account manager with DuPont Sustainable Solutions, an integrated global consulting service and process technology enterprise that helps workplaces and work cultures become safer, more operationally efficient and more environmentally sustainable.

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