Every person is different, meaning that there are as many variables to a job as there are people. Individuals come with a distinct set of skills and personality, therefore requiring personalized support to maximize their capabilities. Ergonomics (the study of the ways in which working conditions can influence the effectiveness of a task being done) looks at both organizational and human aspects that could contribute to job performance. This includes everything from workplace culture to the optimum height of a desk and work equipment.
Workplace culture builds a foreground for safety, wellbeing and performance, which is why ergonomics, or in other words “human factors engineering”, should by no means be excluded from improvement efforts. Feeling safe and staying clear of injuries can immensely contribute towards increased productivity, for example, by reducing the stress levels of the personnel. Moreover, having the right tools and regular breaks during a workday can significantly reduce errors and increase efficiency, thus benefiting not only the individual but also the organization.
What are human factors?
"Human factors refer to environmental, organisational and job factors, and human and individual characteristics, which influence behaviour at work in a way which can affect health and safety" Health and Safety Executive
As part of a commitment to a safe environment, organizations should be accountable for educating their employees on possible work-influencing factors, such as fatigue and situation awareness, and making sure all necessary means have been exhausted to facilitate an effective run of the workplace. Management must take a proactive stand on this, and listen to not only the numeric indicators, but rather the human characteristics behind the incidents.
In movies and TV, we have seen examples of incidents caused by human factors. In the TV programme Breaking Bad, a plane crash was caused by a staff member being upset: he is mourning over his daughter, which leads him to give the wrong instructions to a commercial airplane causing two planes to crash mid-air. A Hollywood example, but an example nonetheless of how human factors can have catastrophic consequences.
Clear and precise communication, regular retraining of work skills, and increasing awareness on human factors can all reduce human errors. So, my tough nut to crack this week is looking at the mind's role and discovering why organizations should consider human factors in the workplace.
The reasons behind our actions
Risk prevention is not limited to reacting to signals; we must also understand the reasons behind our reactions. Digging deeper into the human mind will help us comprehend how we learn and remember, absorb new information and observe the environment, thus allowing safety initiatives to adjust to these processes accordingly.
Sensation, perception & sesponse
We first process events with our senses, which “forward” information to our short term sensory store that can hold new information for up to 1 second at a time.
Sensation is not, however, equal to perception (the action that requires the brain to determine the meaning of the sensory signal, the event). We each “give” a different meaning to this sensation depending on our personal past experiences - now imagine the amount of different perceptions 100 people can have on a sole event.
The following step to perception is response, and as each perception is different, each response will be too. I asked you to think of all the possible perceptions of an event, now think of all the likely responses of the personnel.
There may be no response after perception, but the information is learned by our working memory, which then can be further transmitted into our long-term memory.
Working memory vs. long- term memory
Working memory has a limited capacity and is a short time memory storage for information to be used promptly. However, by learning and training a subject, it's possible to transfer information from working memory to long-term memory.
It's not as straightforward as it sounds. Not all memories are remembered, particularly due to interference - when a new piece of information is input too soon leading to information being “wiped out”. Interference can also cause the removal of old memory if the new memory is too similar.
The most obvious reason for losing old memory, or not remembering a new one, is our limited capacity to remember. A workplace example of a new piece of information taking over an old one could be a changed security code for a door.
From the initial perception, our mind finds a way to respond to the experience. Keeping this is mind, we can better understand the reasoning behind our workplace actions in addressing issues.
A very relevant example is decision-making. We all have to make decisions at work, requiring an understanding of new information and an analysis of old knowledge. In other words, we use our memory to fill in the “missing cues” of the situation.
However, we must be wary of this as our memory can be prone to errors, therefore a good decision maker is able to recognize the key information they need to know before making a the call.
Fatigue and stress are human factors
Fatigue and stress can also affect our workplace choices. How much information do we really absorb once the clock hits 5pm? Or, how well can you consider all relevant points when given 30 seconds to make a decision?
Leadership involves decision-making, and sometimes decisions can impact hundreds of lives. When the captain of the Titanic decided to increase speed, he relied on the current statistics and good weather, but if he used his previous experience and knowledge to fill in the “missing cues” of short visibility and icebergs, the accident may have been prevented.
In a big accident like the Titanic, panic comes into play. Panic is a state of mind easily clouding our judgement, which can lead to risky situations.
Let's say a worker, Jim, is a project manager on a construction site. He overlooks 150 people and participates in decision-making on a daily basis. The project is going well, with no reported incidents so far.
Personnel have been given the chance to work extra weekend shifts, and some workers are already working their 15th consecutive day. Every morning, Jim checks each site has the necessary workforce and a team leader. An experienced personnel was to supervise a team with a new member, who had been called in to fill in a sick leave.
The team leader, who is exhausted from working and overwhelmed by home problems, forgot to inform the new colleague about a safety switch. This triggered a risky situation with an overflow of electricity causing an employee to suffer an electric shock.
When deciding what remediation actions to take, it's important to take a good look at the case: Whose mistake was this? Should the new guy have known that a general safety switch was the norm, or was it the team leader’s responsibility since he was in charge of the new member? It's more complex than that. First of all, Jim allowed his staff to work extra hours without monitoring their wellbeing - the root cause of this incident. The team leader was not in a calm state of mind due to excessive working and worrying.
It is commonly stated that work should be separated from home and vice versa; however, how do you delete financial stress from your mind when it is directly connected with work? Workers should have support these situations, every one of us are a safety risk when too tired or stressed.
Tiredness at work should not be taken lightly. EHS Today reported that 40% of US workers suffer from fatigue - not only influencing performance and safety, but also putting our health at risk. Miwa Sado, a Japanese political reporter, passed away at 31 years after having worked 159 hours overtime at her last month at work. Death by overwork happens so often in Japan there is a word for it: “karoshi”. So, what should organisations be doing?
How to combat human factors at work
Organizations can improve staff competency by organizing training in-line with cognitive abilities. Teaching one task at a time, without interruptions or other new information input, workers can better digest and acquire the information.
Regular re-training maintains the skill level and keeps forgetfulness at bay. Despite training certificates’ expiry date, skill competency can significantly decrease before then. With safety certificates especially, it's risky business to rely on acquired skills used once in a blue moon.
Measuring fatigue and other human factors is a more challenging task. Companies can educate their employees about the risks involved in working long hours, and pass on non-technical skills: situation awareness, communication and decision-making. These tools increase awareness and enables a safe and efficient working manner.
An open work culture can contribute to healthy workplace in which issues such as tiredness or stress could be raised without fear of dismissal or judgement. The staff could also have access to regular consultations with medical staff.
Tackling fatigue is challenging, because its effects vary. There are guides on how to implement a fatigue management plan, but tracking simple statistics like working hours and capping overtime can make a difference. EHS software that integrates with a HR program can be incredibly useful in picking up safety lagging and leading indicators.
Workplace design should not be forgotten. Tools, work spaces and work stations should be designed ergonomically, with noise and general disorganization kept to a minimum. Human factors engineering can minimize human errors and maximize productivity, and also improve safety performance. When planning training, consider our capacity to learn and remember.
Understanding human factors and nourishing a healthy work culture is the key to a better performing workplace.
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