Understanding human factors in safety

Effectiveness depends on interaction between 8 components

Understanding human factors in safety
Dave Fennell

"Safety would be simple if we just didn’t put people in there.” This was actually said to me by a manager with a strong engineering background. While shocking, it did get me thinking about how simple it would be if all we had to do was create really good equipment and facilities and not have to worry about the human aspect of safety.

The reality is that we need engineering, management systems and people all working together in harmony to create a safe workplace — and this becomes the definition of “human factors” in safety.

Human factors are the application of scientific knowledge about facilities and equipment, management systems and people to improve their interaction in the workplace. The emphasis in this definition of human factors is on the interaction. Managing each of these aspects of safety independently or in isolation leads to erroneous and misleading statements, such as: “Safety is simple. You put a procedure in place and make people follow it.” (Yet another comment made to me by a manager.) We cannot be successful in safety unless we understand the science of each of these components and fully appreciate how they interact in our workplaces.

Facilities and equipment refer to the physical workplace. The expertise in this area usually resides with the engineering and technical community. They are the ones that understand this science.

Management systems represent all the policies, procedures and guidance on how things are to be done. This includes training and regulations, processes for investigations, change, staffing and maintenance. This is usually the domain of management and, in some cases, safety professionals.

The expertise on the people component resides with those who understand the physical and cognitive aspects of people, usually the medical community and those who understand why people do what they do, especially as it applies to motivation and risk tolerance (usually the domain of safety professionals).

We do indeed have the scientific knowledge available on each of these aspects of safety, so we should be in a good position to manage human factors. Unfortunately, organizations still operate in a manner that allows these three disciplines to be managed independently. This is the major barrier to having an effective human factors approach to safety. Organizations need to be using an integrated approach that is constantly assessing the interactions between the people, equipment and procedures. We must understand how the people interact with the facilities and equipment. We need to ensure that the procedures and policies can actually be executed successfully and that they are applicable to the equipment and tools in that workplace. We need to understand that the behaviours we see in our people can actually be the results of the equipment design or their interpretation of a management system.

With this consideration for the interaction as our focus, there are eight fundamental components of an effective human factors approach:

Workplace design deals with the workplace setup and the design of the equipment with the consideration for how the people will interact with the equipment. This is our opportunity to engage engineers in incident prevention.

Equipment design assesses the effectiveness of the tools, control panels and displays. Do they make logical sense and are they intuitive and aligned with how the human brain processes information?

Work environment explores how humans are impacted by noise, lighting, vibration, temperature and exposures. We can make the workplace safer when we understand how people’s behaviours change depending on these conditions.

Physical activities deal with the capabilities of the human body. How much force can it safely exert? What are the impacts of repetitive activities? How is the body most likely to be strained or harmed? Our ergonomists are key to addressing this element.

Job design helps us understand the impacts of work schedules, fatigue and workload. Are the management systems set up with an understanding of how humans respond to these factors?

Information transfer explicitly demonstrates the need for workers to understand how they are to interact with the equipment and how we want them to respond to instructions, signs, procedures, labels and other guidance provided in the management systems.

Personal factors deal with the individual capabilities of people as it relates to stress, fitness and other factors unique to the individual. The human ability, or lack thereof, to stay focused and not get distracted is a part of this component. This is where psychological safety fits into our human factors model.

Human error helps us understand why we make mistakes and why we may interpret information incorrectly as we interact with the equipment and attempt to follow the procedures provided. When we understand this, we can ensure that equipment and the management systems are aligned with how the human brain works. 

Safety professionals need to step up and take the lead in human factors. You don’t need to be an expert in every aspect of the human factors. You only need to know where the expertise and scientific knowledge resides, so you can tap into it when needed. You must be the facilitators, co-ordinators and coaches that pull the expertise together, so that the interaction between the facilities and equipment, the management systems and the people is successful and leads to improved safety.

And contrary to the opening statement at the beginning of this article, it won’t be simple. 


This article originally appeared in the June/July 2017 issue of COS.