Workplace culture is the foreground for safety, wellbeing and performance. However, improving a workplace safety culture means paying close attention to ergonomics, or in other words, human factors engineering.

Feeling safe at work reduces stress levels. Moreover, proper equipment and regular breaks significantly reduces errors and increases efficiency.

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For this reason, and many more, employers must consider the relationship between human factors and safety.

This blog post is a comprehensive guide to workplace human factors - in particular, stress and fatigue - and how employers can combat them.

Ready? Let's dive in.

What are human factors?

According to HSE,

"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"

In the other words, companies should staff educate on human factors' impact on facilitating an effective and safe workplace. However, it goes beyond data. A proactive stand involves listening to the behind-the-scenes human characteristics of incidents.

For example, in crime drama TV series Breaking Bad, human emotion causes a plane crash. A worker mourns for his daughter, and mistakenly gives the wrong instructions. As a result, two plans crash mid-air.

Human factors can have catastrophic consequences. But how can we mitigate human errors?

Why we do what we do

Risk prevention is understanding our reactions. Digging into the mind lets us comprehend how we learn, remember and observe.

Sensation, perception & response

Firstly, we process events with our senses. Then, the information "forwards" to our working memory.

However, sensation and perception are not equal. We “give” a sensation meaning depending on our personal experiences. Now, imagine the amount of different perceptions 100 people have on a sole event.

Response is the following step. As each perception is different, so is each response.

If there is no response but the information is already learned by our working memory, it can be transmitted into our long-term memory.

The difference between working memory and long- term memory

Working memory has a limited capacity and new information must be used promptly.

When we learn and train in a subject, information is transferred to long-term memory.

However, it gets complicated. Not all memories are retained. This is due to interference - when new information is input too soon and "wipes out" the other information.

Also, interference removes old memories if a new memory is too similar. For example, a changed security code on a door.

Human factors in decision making

As discussed earlier, our minds respond from the initial perception. With this knowledge, we can better understand our workplace actions.

For example, decision-making. We make decisions at work using new information and analysing old knowledge. In other words, memories fill in “missing cues”.

However, memories are error-prone. That's why good decision-makers recognize key information before making a call.

Human factors can influence the decision making process.

The human factors of fatigue and stress

When the clock hits 5pm, how much new information is really absorbed? Or, how well can you make a decision in 30 seconds?

Leadership involves decision-making. Sometimes these decisions impact hundreds of lives.

When the Titanic's captain decided to increase speed, he relied on current statistics and good weather. However, if he used existing knowledge to fill in  “missing cues” of poor visibility and icebergs, the accident may have been prevented.

Of course, panic comes in to play. Panic easily clouds our judgement, sometimes resulting in unsafe events.

How fatigue causes unsafe events

Let's say Jim is construction site project manager. He overlooks 150 people and makes decisions daily. So far, the project is going well with no reported incidents.

Extra weekend shifts become available. However, some workers are on their 15th consecutive day.

Every morning, Jim checks each site has a team leader and the necessary workforce. On one site, an experienced team leader had a contractor filling in sick leave.

However, this team leader is exhausted from working and has issues at home. He forgets to inform the contractor about the safety switch. As a result, an electricity overflow shocks a worker.

In a scenario like this, analyze all factors. Whose mistake was this? Should the contractor know general safety switches are standard practice? Or does the team leader hold the blame for not informing?

Moreover, there's more factors. Firstly, Jim worked his staff extra hours without monitoring their wellbeing - the incident's root cause. Secondly, the team leader's excessive working and worrying resulted in a distracted mind.

Work/life balance

Sometimes, it's difficult to separate work-life from home-life. How do you stop financial stress directly connected with work? Workers need support with this; we are all safety risks when too tired or stressed.

Importantly, tiredness should not be taken lightly - 40% of US workers suffer from fatigue. Not only influencing work performance, but also putting our health at risk.

A Japanese political reporter, Miwa Sado, died after having worked 159 hours overtime in a month. Sadly, death by overwork happens often in Japan. The Japanese word for it is “karoshi”.

Now, what should organisations do?

How to combat human factors at work

Organizing training in-line with cognitive abilities improves staff competency. Training in one task at a time without interruptions or other information input lets staff digest and acquire information.

Regular re-training maintains skills. Despite training certificates’ expiry date, skill competency decreases before then. In safety, it's risky to rely on rarely used skills.

On the other hand, measuring fatigue, stress and other human factors is challenging. Educating employees on risks associated with working long hours, alongside non-technical skills like situation awareness, communication and decision-making. These tools increase awareness, and enables a safe and efficient workplace.

An open work culture contributes to healthy workplace, with human factors issues raised without fear of dismissal or judgement. Plus, staff access to regular medical consultations.

Tackling fatigue is more challenging. Guides on implementing a fatigue management plan are available. However, tracking simple statistics like working hours and capping overtime makes difference. EHS software is incredibly useful in picking up safety lagging and leading indicators.

Workplace ergonomics are important too. Work tools and spaces should be designed ergonomically, with noise and disorganization at a minimum. Human factors engineering minimizes human errors and maximizes productivity, alongside improving safety performance.

To sum up, understanding human factors and nourishing a healthy work culture is key to a safe workplace.

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A Copenhagen Business School graduate with a MA in International Business Communication, Tytti joined the Pro-Sapien marketing department in 2017 and brings a wide range of experience to the team – not to mention the ability to fluently speak three languages, Finnish (native), English and Spanish. Outside of business Tytti is an avid gymnast having competed at international level in the Aesthetic Group Gymnastics Championships, and has lived in Finland, France, Argentina, Spain, Denmark and now the United Kingdom. As the Graduate Marketing Executive Tytti coordinates Pro-Sapien’s social outreach and blog content, and can be reached at tytti.rekosuo@pro-sapien.com.