Intervening in Human Factors: EHS Manager's View

Human factors remain at the core of the health and safety sector; mainly because understanding the human mind makes processes such as incident investigation much more efficient and meaningful. Mechanistic and systematic approaches may be useful for explaining engineering and forensic factors, but could they be used to understand the nature of the human mind? And, even if we did understand human behavior better, how do we (and can we) control the mind?

One of the challenges that technological devices and social media have caused is a general inability, or at least a struggle, to focus on one thing at a time. We have already spoken about mindful vs. mind full in a previous blog post, recognizing the increasing distractions caused by smart devices such as smart phones and tablets.

To continue the conversation around this topic, our latest guest post is by Hugo Ribeiro, an experienced EHS manager. He discusses how working on the level of attention our workers pay to their work and adjusting this focus according to the task in question, we could better prevent incidents caused by the lack of situational awareness and our inability to extend our focus beyond our immediate task.

Incident investigation - what should we ask?

Even today I see that the vast majority of incidents are investigated until a culprit is found. This is usually someone who is not present at the investigation meeting or who is not given the opportunity to speak out. The person might then be led to believe that he/she has committed a beginner’s error and must therefore attend further training; or depending on the seriousness of the infraction, faces other serious consequences such as dismissal.

questions in an incident investigationThis type of blame culture/approach that looks for someone to point the finger at leads companies to invest heavily in employee training. You wouldn’t encounter an incident investigation that doesn’t propose a training recycling action, Daily Safety Dialogue on the subject, or guidance of employees, among other rather simplistic actions. All these measures intend to indoctrinate employees to perform their tasks mechanically in line with the standard procedures believed to be the best and safest - but are we focusing on the essential here?

In order to better reflect on the above, here are some questions that are almost always asked during an incident investigation:

  1. When was the official admitted?
  2. Since when do you perform this function?
  3. Were you trained to perform the task in question?

All these questions have the same purpose; to recognize if the employee had sufficient experience for the task, and whether the nature of the incident was caused by habitual or sporadic behavior. This is where I begin to defend my point of view.

Experience and lack of it – both a threat?

The answers to these types of questions may lead us toward the wrong conclusions and influence our decision-making. For example, if we find that the employee in question was in fact new in the function, or undergoing training, the easy route is to conclude that the worker’s lack of experience was the cause for the incident and that what he/she needed (corrective action) was more training hours.

Experience and the lack of it - both a threat?But if on the other hand the employee involved in the same incident had worked for 20 years performing the same function, knowing in detail every step of the task, he could also require retraining. If we do the same work for a long period of time, it becomes routine to us, this meaning that less of our conscious attention is required for the work. Or at least this is how we feel.

Our habits can be recognized as both good and bad, and when they fall to the latter one they need to be replaced. Hence, when asking questions during an incident investigation, we mustn’t assume blindly that experience, or the lack of it, was the root cause.

Usually, if the incident is found to be “caused by a person”, this is framed as “human error”. But what kind of mistake is it to focus hard on a task, or to be distracted by someone/something else in our environment?

Habit is a second nature – or is it?

The great philosopher Aristotle once said that “habit is a second nature”. We can interpret this phrase in the following way: when an action is repeated incessantly, we become so good at it that it starts to feel like “second nature” to us. Or, another plausible way to analyze this phrase would be to say that something that feels natural may not be so. When we become comfortable in our work, our concentration is known to decrease. It is in these moments of “lower focus” that incidents are more likely to occur.

Did you know, for example, that car insurance is cheaper for women than it is for men? The reason is simple:

The question arises: If both experience and inexperience have the potential to trigger incidents, how can we reduce their impact?

In my opinion, it is not only a question of our experience but rather the greatest difficulty in avoiding incidents lies in the difficulty to adjust our focus. Hence, my suggestion is that if we work on the level of attention our workers pay to their work and adjust this focus according to the task in question, we can better prevent the type of incidents caused by our lack of situational awareness and/or distracted mind.

The Gorilla Experience and Second Language Acquisition

Let’s have a look at these two simple examples:

  1. the gorilla experienceDaniel Simmons developed the famous experience called "The Gorilla Experience". This test consists of a video in which we’re shown two groups of 3 people, the other group members wearing white shirts and the other group black shirts, exchanging basketball passes. The viewers are asked to count how many passes the white team has changed within a certain period of time. While the teams keep passing the ball, a gorilla emerges in the background. What is curious is that most people don’t notice the gorilla. The reason to this is that the viewers are “too focused” on the task they were asked to do.

As this example excellently demonstrates, once we put our mind into a task, it becomes easy for us to ignore the happenings in our surroundings. This means that our mind is capable of adjusting the focus and pays less attention to the things irrelevant to our immediate task. If we think about workplace safety, however, this scenario is not ideal.

Situational awareness”, a term often used in the context of human factors, is the cause of many incidents. When we work with routinized tasks, we may fail to spot and react to activities in our surroundings that may essentially pose a threat to our safety. So, working inside a “bubble” impacts our ability to perceive potential risks.

Another possibility is that some things catch our attention and distract our work even if we try to avoid this:

  1. second language learningIf you speak more than one language and have learned a second one in a conventional way (in a language school or even with a private teacher), it is likely that you have already experienced a situation where a person shows up in the middle of your language immersion (class) speaking in your native language. What happens is that the sound of your maternal language steals your attention immediately, involuntarily. What I mean by this is that even if you were totally focused on one aspect and didn’t want to stray away from it, it might be impossible for when something your brain is more familiar with appears.

Our native language is so strongly “embedded” in our brains (it is the default language for communication) that our ear is immediately attracted to it, more so than to other languages.

These two examples demonstrate how difficult it is for us to consciously adjust our focus. Focusing too intensely can blind us to the periphery where most risks operate, and our limited capacity to pay attention betrays us in the moment we should be able to broaden the extent of our focus towards the surroundings of our immediate job.

Can we intervene in human factors by training employees to adjust their focus?

So, even though workers might be performing their task in the best way possible, without neglecting safety rules, it might be impossible for them to find the perfect focus that allows them to maximize both productivity and health and safety. This is a challenge to the employer and the following question should be given more attention: How can we help our employees (both experienced and inexperienced) to adjust their focus in a way that would reduce the occurrence of incidents originating from our inability to extend our focus to the “right things”?

Can we intervene in human factors?We can adjust our focus if we know how to adjust it. Despite the workers’ level of experience, employers can help them focus in the right way so that hazards can be detected. We cannot control the mind, or manage the impact of all human factors, however, we can provide our employees with tools that help them stay safer in the workplace.

I continue to work so that environmental conditions and human factors wouldn’t favor the occurrence of incidents. I want to understand how we can intervene precisely in human factors.

Editor: Tytti Rekosuo

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Hugo RIbeiro is an experienced EHS manager currently working as EHS supervisor at ICL Brazil. In addition to his professional experience, he has degrees from Civil Engineering, Business Administration, Project Management and he's a qualified safety technician and Responsible Care 14001 lead assessor auditor.