Search Stories by: 

Safety, Education, Management

Articles from EDUCATION & TRAINING (304 Articles), OH&S - EQUIPMENT & SERVICES (256 Articles)

Why humans are the strongest link in the safety chain

The typical focus in safety is that the human is our weakest link. But humans are the strongest – naturally equipped to deal with risks dynamically, and with incredible risk skills. Lincoln Eldridge, who will present on safety behaviours, argues we just need to unleash that capability.

The traditional focus on the human, in the context of safety, is that it is the weak link, the hazard, the “error maker”.

A safety conference where the human is not singled out as the key problem is an unlikely event. Titles such as “preventing human error” or “preventing complacency” or “eliminating at-risk behaviours” abound. Not only is it a popular topic at conferences, it has also been the central tenet of the safety industry in the past two decades. Behaviour-based safety is probably both the single most noticeable “approach” to safety improvement and the single most acclaimed source of success in attaining improvements in recent times.

Its singular goal is to eliminate risk-taking behaviour and increase safe behaviours. However, that is simply wrong! Imagine a world where we have eliminated risk-taking behaviour:

Nobody takes a step out of the prescribed actions for a job.

Nobody questions whether the task should be done otherwise.

Nobody challenges the safety procedures.

Nobody looks for an alternative way to execute a task.

Nobody tries to change the job in any way.

That is what an organisation would look like if it achieved full compliance – and full compliance is the ideal/goal of any safety behavioural program.

But in achieving it we have also managed to kill the ability of the organisation to innovate and to continuously improve. We have just gone against everything that makes humans – be they workers, supervisors or managers – the best resource of all.

We will have gone counter to something that makes great organisations great – their ability to adapt and innovate and to dynamically change!

And it is the human factor that makes organisations great, because we can do things in ways that nothing else can. “Complacency” is not a deficiency we should or even could eliminate. It is one of the best capabilities we have to allow us to deal with an ever changing and high risk work environment. Imagine if we were not complacent – we would not be able to get out of bed and go to work without arriving in a state of anxiety and fear!

The “elimination of at-risk behaviours” is a highly dubious notion.

Risk is not a static condition in the business or the workplace. An “aspect” of risk that is hugely misunderstood is that it changes dramatically all the time. Risks change in likelihood of occurrence and outcomes almost every second of a workday, especially in typically complex, high risk work environments.

Think of risks in a simple situation: an intersection between two streets. The number of cars interacting with each other changes constantly, the movement of pedestrians changes all the time and sometimes there is an “outlier”, a pedestrian that crosses against a red light, or a slow walking old person. Mix this in with a large truck approaching, with limited vision of small objects such as people, or a car that travels too fast, and the driver on a mobile phone, the sun glaring in a person’s eyes ... the possibilities are endless. Then back to a normal flow of cars for a while, until suddenly a cyclist doesn’t see the red light and swerves away for a pedestrian crossing over ...

Every workplace looks much like this, with the types and chances of possible events constantly changing. If we have done a comprehensive risk assessment, it is almost immediately obsolete! We simply can’t capture all the variants of risk in our formal and static way – but humans can! Humans have the following capabilities that no other resource has:

  • Observation skills, which surpasses anything any machine or proximity alert system can detect.

  • Judgment skills, which can assess risks with “thumb suck rules” (heuristics) in a highly dynamic situation, using algorithms in the brain about probabilities that no supercomputer can emulate.

  • “Gut feelings”, using emotions and intuition to gain insight into a risky situation that goes beyond reason and rationality.

  • Sixth senses, that can detect possible threats long before they materialise.

  • Heroism, to take actions against all odds that would be totally avoided if you judged it rationally, and with which humans can make extraordinary recoveries of hopeless situations.

  • Innovation and creativity, the ability of the human brain to construct solutions that also surpass all rational capability of any other resource.

  • Resilience, which is a culmination of the above capabilities, but more than this – adapting quickly and acting proactively, with flexibility, to the risks in the environment, and overcoming insurmountable odds to be successful.

The focus of the safety profession is to eliminate human error from the workplace, but it has long lost sight of the focus on human capability and risk competence – its ability to act beyond reason and to achieve beyond limits.

The safety profession has the option to advance dramatically with such a new focus!

Lincoln Eldridge

Lincoln Eldridge is the managing director of SAFEmap International in Australia and a psychologist who has specialised in the field of organisational and industrial safety. He has worked strategically for the past decade in safety improvement and growth for multinational companies such as BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, Anglo American, Boeing, Peabody Energy, Aker Kvaerner and many others across Australasia, Africa, Europe and North America. Lincoln also currently works with leading thinkers in industrial safety, in an effort to develop a new paradigm for safety practice in Australian and international workplaces into the future.

enewsletter banner 2

Wednesday, 21 August, 2019 8:47am
login to my account
Username: Password:
Skyscraper 2
Free Sign Up

Receive FREE newsletter and alerts

Bost Group
Skyscraper 2