The typical focus in safety is that the human being is our weakest link in safety. But they are indeed the strongest: naturally equipped to deal with risks dynamically, and with incredible risk skills…
We just need to unleash that capability…
The traditional focus on the human, in the context of safety, is that the human being is the weak link, the hazard, the ‘error maker’.
A safety conference where the human being is not pointed out as the key problem in safety is an unlikely event. Titles such as: ‘Preventing human error’ or “Preventing complacency” and “Eliminate at-risk behaviors” abound. Not only is it a popular topic at conferences, it has also been the central tenet of the safety industry in the last 2 decades. Behavior-based safety is probably both the single most noticeable ‘approach’ to safety improvement and the single most widely acclaimed of success in attaining these improvements in recent times. Its singular goal is to eliminate risk-taking behavior and increase safe behaviors.
However, that is simply wrong! Imagine a world where we have eliminated risktaking behavior:
- Nobody takes a step out of the prescribed actions for a job…
- Nobody questions whether the task should be done otherwise…
- Nobody challenges the safety procedures
- Nobody looks for an alternative way to execute a task
- Nobody tries to change the job in any way
That is what an organization would look like if it has achieved full compliance – and full compliance is the ideal/goal vision of any safety behavioral program. But in achieving this we have also managed to kill the ability of the organization to innovate and to continuously improve. We have just gone against everything that makes human beings, be they workers, supervisors or managers,the best resource of all. We will have gone counter to something that makes great organizations great: their ability to adapt and innovate and to dynamically change!
And it is the human factor that makes organizations great, because we are able to do things in ways that nothing else can. “Complacency” is not a deficiency we should or even could eliminate. It is one of the best capabilities we have to allow us to deal with an ever changing and high-risk work environment. Imagine if we were not complacent: We would not be able to get out of bed and to work without arriving there in a state of anxiety and fear!
The ‘elimination of at-risk behaviors” is a highly dubious notion:
Risk is not a static condition in the business or the workplace. An ‘aspect’ of risk that is hugely misunderstood is that it changes dramatically all the time. Risks change in likelihood of occurrence and outcomes almost every second of a workday, especially in typically complex, high-risk work environments.
Think of risks in a simple situation of an intersection between two streets. The number of cars interacting with each other changes constantly, the movement of pedestrians changes all the time, and sometimes there is an “outlier”…a pedestrian that crosses against a red light, or a slow walking aged person crossing. Mix this in with a large truck approaching with limited vision of small objects such as people, or a car that travels too fast, and the driver on a cell phone, the sun glaring in a person’s eyes…and the possibilities are endless. Then back to a normal flow of cars for a while, until suddenly a cyclist doesn’t see the red light and swerves away for a pedestrian crossing over…
Every workplace looks much like this, with the type and chances of possible events constantly changing. If we have done a comprehensive risk assessment, it is almost immediately obsolete! We simply can’t capture all the variants of risk in our formal and static way – but human beings can! Human beings have the following capabilities that no other resource has.
- Observation skills, that surpasses anything any machine or proximity alert system can detect
- Judgment skills, that can assess risks with ‘thumb suck rules’ (heuristics) in a highly dynamic situation, using algorithms in the brain about probabilities that no supercomputer can emulate
- “Gut feelings” using emotions and intuition to gain insight into a risky situation that goes beyond reason and rationality
- Sixth senses, that can detect possible threats long before they materialize
- Heroism, to take actions against all odds, that would be totally avoided if you judged it rationally, and with which humans can make extraordinary recoveries of hopeless situations
- Innovation and creativity is the ability of the human brain to construct solutions that also surpass all rational capability of any other resource.
- Resilience, which is a culmination of the above capabilities, but more than this – adapting quickly and acting proactively, with flexibility, to the risks in the environment, and overcoming insurmountable odds to be successful
The focus of the safety profession is to eliminate the human error from the workplace, but it has long lost sight of the focus on human capability and risk competence – its ability to act beyond reason and to achieve beyond limits.
The safety profession has the option to advance dramatically with such a new focus!
Note: This post was co-authored with Lincoln Eldridge
Hi Corrie, (and Lincoln),
I have to both agree and disagree wiht your article.
Whilst SOME humans do encapsulate all the strengths you set out, there are many who also have weaknesses in one or more of the seven strengths. These weaknesses, if not recognised or managed, do contribute to incidents and hence those humans ARE weak links in the management of safety.
People who do not have adequate qualifications, skill or experience tend to take risks that they have inadequatley assessed. This is not because they are stupid or, necessarily, even risk takers enjoying the adrenaline rush. Sometimes they even make such poor choices for very admirable reasons. But they get injured, maimed or even killed simply because they were ill-equipped to assess the situation and make appropriate allowances for managing the prevailing risks.
Why do we make sure we hold our children’s hands when first teaching them to cross the road? They don’t have the necessary skill to first recognise the hazards and second assess the risks. The same thing is true of young workers and those who come into an industry or workplace they are not familiar with.
One major strength of the ‘continuous improvement’ approach to management is that it seeks to make sure that someone who comes up with an idea for doing a job differently follows a structured approach to introducing change with a view to minimising the potential for adverse outcomes.
The discipline doesn’t advocate ‘no change’ to an existing work process. It advocates a ‘controlled’ approach to introduce changes.
And so we need to manage both the strong and the weak humans in our workplaces so that one doesn’t set a poor example for the other and that good choices for change and improvement are made using a controlled approach.
Hi Corrie and Lincoln,
A refreshing new pitch to a rather rhetorical Safety debate and I reckon, going back to “what makes us human” may not be such a weird concept.
As a risk practitioner, I dare say the comments about current Risk approaches hurts a little but keeping an open mind, looking beyond that, I can see your point.
Happy to take advice on practical ways to be more successful (especially during the design & construction phases, my field of interest) and moving beyond human factors being a LIABILITY into making it an ASSET – I guess by “cashing in” on all those special human capabilities.
In that case you need to look into human- (or user-) centred design. Been around for donkey’s years, but only lip-service paid to it by many organisations. Done well and early enough in the lifecycle it has many benefits, not least reducing costly rework.
Thanks for you reply.
One view that I hold is that maybe we don’t have far to go in terms of
‘getting back to what makes us human’ and moving into a place where the
person’s ability is seen as an ‘asset’ as you mention. My belief is that
people are currently doing most of what we have written about in our post.
The challenge is that current thinking about safety hasn’t fully realised
this yet. People are still the problem – full of ‘original sin’ and
destined to make mistakes, therefore they need to be changed so they don’t
Every day there are workers all over who are making decisions about ‘risk’
that are outside of the ‘safety management systems / risk management
systems’ they work within (e.g. They don’t update the risk assessment
paperwork every time something changes during the work day, that would be
almost impossible & impractical). Things don’t go as expected, the people
adjust and re-plan on the go. Goals change, targets change, resource
levels change. Each time the people are out there responding to and
dealing with these changes, some of which are gradual others much more
rapidly. These unique human competencies are on display all around us, we
(safety profession) need a better understanding of this to enable a
harnessing of these qualities and competencies. I’d go so far as to
hypothesise that our risk management and safety management ‘systems’ would
become even more effective if we did.