Nearly all workplace accidents are caused by human error. Some of the most disastrous workplace accidents in recorded history, such as Chernobyl disaster, the Piper Alpha, and Texas City Refinery Plant explosion were all attributed to human error. Every worker is prone to error regardless of the level of training, experience, and knowledge. Errors can be caused by slips and lapses of judgment, violation of existing procedures, and inadvertent mistakes. Also, errors can be caused by an unfavorable work environment and conditions that places undue stress on the worker. Measures can be taken to reduce the probability of human error, such as safety and health awareness, provision of a conducive and technically safe work environment, and elimination of human factors that impair cognitive abilities.
Human error, with regard to workplace safety, can be defined as occurrences in which the planned physical and mental activities do not produce the desired or expected results and where such failures are not occasioned by some external agent. It’s widely accepted that to err is human and as such, error cannot be completely eliminated. However, if the most common types of errors are established, measures can be taken to prevent their recurrence in the future. Human error leads to failure and accidents as it causes deviation from a set course of action (Salminen par.1). Therefore, human error can be termed as a symptom of failure and can lead to big problems if not properly addressed. Human error emanates from people’s association with tools, the work environment, and tasks. Human error is an important element of workplace place safety and its detection, prevention, or elimination can alleviate many catastrophic occurrences.
Types of human error
Human failure can be termed as latent or active. Active failures are the type of failures that directly lead to an accident. Such errors are usually made by people operating in the field such as machine operators and drivers. Active errors can be further classified into three categories. These include violations, mistakes, and slips and lapses. Violations are defined as deliberate and conscious deviations from safety guidelines. On the other hand, mistakes are those actions believed to be right at the time of execution but later turn out to be wrong (Salminen par.5). Conversely, slips and lapses are inadvertent failures by knowledgeable and experienced personnel while performing routine tasks.
Errors can be attributed to several workplace conditions. For example, if a worker is performing a task that does not require a lot of concentration, he is more prone to error such as slips and lapses in case he is slightly distracted. Mistakes occur if a worker is simultaneously performing a range of complex tasks. Common mistakes include miscalculation of time and distance required to overtake a vehicle on the road. On the other hand, violations are driven by the desire to present satisfactory results while working under a set of several constraints (To err is human: human error and workplace safety par.3). Common violations stem from taking shortcuts to beat deadlines and deliver results within a budget.
Latent failures can be termed as the attributes of an organization which impact on a worker’s performance thereby making him more prone to failure. Common factors that lead to human error include the nature of the job with regard to distractions, availability of proper procedure guidelines, timing, poor lighting, and extreme temperatures. Also, the state of the worker with regard to the job can lead to error. Such human factors include competency, physical ability, stress, fatigue, and the use of drugs (Salminen par.6). Organizational factors beyond the workers control can also culminate in him making an error. These include long working hours, insufficient supervision, and being overworked. Also, poor plant layout and lack of proper equipment increase the chances of a human error.
Identification of human error
Error can be identified by using the Swiss Cheese model. The model is hinged on the premise that layers of defense mechanisms prevent accidents from occurring in the workplace. Under perfect operation conditions, the defense layers are a hundred percent effective and as such, no accident can occur. However, perfect conditions cannot exist in the real world. Therefore, the defensive layers are said to have holes, just like slices of Swiss Cheese. These holes are dynamic; continuously opening, closing, and shifting positions. According to the cheese model, an accident happens when the holes align across the Cheese layers and permit the movement of an accident opportunity through the layers (Human factors: Managing human failures par.4). In general, the Swiss Cheese model stipulates that the risk of an accident is present only when the holes in the defensive layers are lined up. Therefore at any given time, the chance of this occurring is very slim and hence the reason why accidents are rare.
Human factors in accidents
There are no specific or clearly defined human factors that can be pinpointed as the main cause of accidents. Studies have shown that the definition of human factors as the causal agents in accidents is dynamic and depends on the language used. Also, the weight given to human factors depends on the context of an accident (Salminen par.6). In addition, the responsibility of human factors in an accident often arises through discourse and talk.
The role of cognitive failure in human error
Cognitive failure occurs when a worker fails in terms of memory, perception, and motor function. Examples of cognitive failures are when workers forget to turn off electrical equipment or cannot remember whether they performed a given task or whether they are supposed to do it. Cognitive failure in the workplace is measured by using the Cognitive Failures Questionnaire (CFQ). The questionnaire is given to workers to assess self-reported failures When the CFQ questionnaire was given to 240 electrical technicians working in the United Stated Army, the resulting scale showed a high probability of work accidents and car accidents. Also, when the questionnaire was given to foremen in the same department to assess the safety performance of the workers, it showed that both the foremen and workers had the same rating which averaged at 0.79 (Salminen par.10). Therefore, it can be argued that cognitive ability is determined by a confluence of factors and the level of skills, experience, and knowledge do not influence the CFQ rating of an individual.
Factors that influence human error
Human error can also be described using the Rasmussen's Skill –Rule-Knowledge (SRK) model. The SRK model describes skill based work behavior as sensorimotor controlled actions performed without conscious control. As such, work performance is determined by subroutines which are controlled by high levels of control (Salminen par.9). On the other hand, rule based work performance occurs when a worker is working in a familiar environment regulated by consciously applied rules. In such an environment, performance is goal-oriented and aligned with a feed-forward control structure that is hinged on a stored rule. Finally, knowledge based workplace behavior is influenced by unfamiliar work conditions (To err is human: human error and workplace safety par.4). In such a situation, the worker is forced to formulate new and unfamiliar goals based on his or her understating of the environment. Therefore, the worker adopts previous knowledge to the current work situation using appropriate strategies to arrive at the desired results.
Prevention of human error
Human errors can be greatly reduced by maintaining focus on the task at hand. Empirical reviews have shown that intake of caffeine improves memory, reasoning, perception, attention, orientation and concept formation. Also, focus can be boosted in a job by presenting workers with accident data that is aligned with a worker’s way of thinking, such as through the Rasmussen SRK model (To err is human: human error and workplace safety par.7).
Avoiding stress among workers
Studies show that workers suffering from mental conditions are more likely to commit workplace errors. For example, a study done on British soldiers showed that stressed workers were more prone to cognitive errors. Therefore, reducing stress lowers human error and hence the risk of accidents. Working under immense pressure due to short deadlines also creates pressure and impairs judgment (Salminen par.13). Hence, slowing down the rate of doing work can reduce the probability of error occurring.
Human error is the main cause of accidents in the workplace. Although human error cannot be eliminated completely, several measures can be taken to reduce incidences. Common error reduction methods include drinking coffee to remain focused and ensuring that the workers are not working under stressing conditions. Human errors can be active or latent. Active errors are as a result of the direct actions of a worker while latent errors occur due to the impact of the work environment on the worker. Errors are a culmination of a chain of events and their prevention necessitates a several types of preventive actions such as skills and safety awareness on accident risks emanating from human error. Human error can also be avoided by offering a favorable work environment such as a technically safe design characterized by handrails and light curtains.
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Salminen, Simo. “Human error.” European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. OSH Wiki, 1 March 2016. Web. 21 April 2016.
“To err is human: human error and workplace safety.” SHP Online. UBM, 13 July 2015. Web. 21 April 2016.