Human factors affect how likely people are to get injured—by making them less attentive to the hazards around them, for example—and as the human factors fluctuate throughout the day, so does the risk of injury. In one moment, a worker may be completely focused on the task at hand and then, in the next, their attention may be interrupted by a co-worker, a loud noise or a nagging thought.
It’s not just small, incidental occurrences that can cause human factors to ebb and flow. Large-scale issues like COVID-19 and other massive societal concerns can dramatically alter the effects of human factors, and, in some cases, even introduce new human factors in the workplace. One of the basic facts about human factors is that they’re never constant. Physical and psychological states like frustration, confusion and distraction fluctuate in real time.
During pandemics, human factors tend to spike and stay at a relative high level—unless companies take strides to rein them in. Here’s a list of several human factors that are likely to be heightened, which means they’ll have a serious impact on workplace safety. There’s also a discussion at the end about what safety professionals can (and can’t) do to mitigate the effects of human factors caused by the coronavirus.
It’s worth noting that the states of mind and body listed below are all in addition to the run-of-the-mill human factors that typically affect workers. As you read, keep in mind that commonly occurring states don’t go away just because there’s a public health emergency.
Fear is a double-edged sword. In some cases, a healthy dose of fear can actually improve workplace safety. As Cheri Genereaux points out in the article “Ten Feet Tall and Falling”, when a big, scary, visible hazard is present in the workplace then people are likely to be aware of it and, as a result, much less at risk of being injured by it. Their fear of it will center their focus and kill off their complacency.
But in other instances, fear can lead to erratic or unpredictable decision-making. The fear of contracting COVID-19 may also cause workers to appear standoffish, unsociable, and less willing to step in to help fellow co-workers. And employees may be so focused on avoiding contact with others that they’ll be less attuned to the dangers of familiar physical hazards.
The news seems to change by the hour—how many people are sick or dead, which states plan on re-opening and in what capacity, and which politician is arguing for a particular policy aimed at curbing the societal damage of the coronavirus.
Personal distractions also abound for many people, from a spouse’s job insecurity to juggling child care and worries about the health of vulnerable family members.
It’s impossible not to be consumed by personal distractions these days. But just because it’s an understandable state of affairs doesn’t mean it’s any less dangerous. Safety professionals in every industry should be aware that the vast majority of their workforce is much more distracted than normal.
While it may not be the most obvious concern, chronic stress can dramatically alter how people act in the workplace (and it can exacerbate other human factors too). It affects the way workers process information, make safety decisions, and can even affect routine behaviors and habits like wearing PPE.
Stress may be hard to recognize because it can often be invisible, or else its symptoms may appear to be signs of other human factors, like frustration, fatigue or illness. But that just makes stress all the more difficult to address. All told, stress is among the serious safety issues caused by COVID-19.
One of the reasons human factors are so insidious is that they compound in multiple ways. Not only do their effects stack on top of one another—it’s more dangerous to be distracted and rushing than it is to be distracted and working at a normal pace—but one human factor can also be the catalyst to cause more to occur. This is particularly true when it comes to fatigue.
A common symptom of fear, stress and general uncertainty about the future is to have trouble sleeping—subsequently causing fatigue. Which leads to millions of people showing up at work in states of stress, fatigue and fear. If you’re counting, that’s three different risk-elevating states of mind that are affecting employees before they punch in for their shift.
There may be other causes of fatigue too, particularly in industries that have ramped up production to meet an increase in orders, or in workplaces that have reduced the number of employees on the floor due to layoffs or social distances measures. In cases like these, people may need to work harder or longer than normal, which can lead to fatigue.
Changes in workplace operations or production demands can not only cause fatigue, but they can also lead to other human factors. In particular, they can cause employees to work at a much faster pace than usual. In a word, it can lead to rushing.
There may be other pandemic-induced reasons for rushing. If people fear that their job may be on the chopping block, they could try to show their value by working harder than usual. Or they could rush to finish their tasks so they can leave work earlier, particularly if they need to take over child care duties or attend to other personal matters. General stress can also induce workers to exert themselves more than normal, even if there’s no overt need for them to.
At some point, every company that’s stopped operating due to the pandemic will have to get things going again. But when employees return to the workplace, it will be far from normal. In many sectors, there will be changes to the working environment, from social distancing measures to engineering alterations to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus.
Rapid workplace changes often lead to a sense of uncertainty among employees, especially if safety procedures or production processes are adjusted. Uncertainty is an often overlooked but potentially dangerous state of mind—when workers aren’t sure what they should do, how they should do it, what their co-workers are doing around them, or where they can get the answers they need, a host of potential safety issues can arrive.
What’s a safety professional to do?
There’s no single solution to these problems. Some issues, like uncertainty, can be addressed by having effective safety conversations with workers so that everyone knows what’s expected of them and there’s a shared understanding of what the ‘new normal’ looks like. But what if supervisors, and safety managers and other frontline leaders aren’t clear on new operational parameters?
And while 24/7 safety should be part of any proactive EHS program, there’s only so much that can be done to alleviate the stress, fear and distraction caused by COVID-19. So what’s a safety professional to do about the proliferation of human factors, among all the other suddenly pressing workplace safety issues?
The first step is to recognize what’s beyond our control. In most cases, we can’t make people’s economic and health worries go away. And it’s impossible to make people leave their stress and mental distraction in their cars before they enter the workplace. But what safety folks can do is help workers understand the risk of human factors and the importance of focusing as much as possible on the task at hand.
Accommodating unresolvable issues by altering employee rotations and task assignments. Bringing the dangers of human factors into the light by holding extra toolbox talks and safety discussions. Supporting supervisors and other frontline leaders so they can better look out for workers who are at a higher risk of injury thanks to human factors. Making sure any changes to the work environment or operational processes are reflected in the organization’s human factors safety framework. These are all steps that EHS professionals can take to mitigate the additional dangers posed by human factors.
There’s one last thing that can be done to protect workers: look to the future. These may be unprecedented times, but it doesn’t mean that things will settle back to normal eventually. The sooner we collectively acknowledge that safety is going to look a little different in the age of coronavirus, the sooner we can all begin to tackle the challenges posed by COVID-19. This will also help with the uncertainty that may live in the minds of the workers.
In the coming months and years, safety budgets are going to be under intense pressure due to economic uncertainty and the need for new engineering solutions. But as this post demonstrates, human factors are going to be a bigger threat than ever. Taking the proper steps to train workers and supervisors on how to deal with the dangers of human factors may be one of the most effective interventions that can be taken to protect workers in the midst of this pandemic as well as in the years that follow.