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Manage Human Factors in Safety Management Systems With 3 Key Techniques

Human factors management on construction site

Approaches to organizational safety have come a long way. Gone are the days when companies can hand out some hardhats, warn employees about a hazard in the workplace, and check the box for safety compliance.

Business leaders now recognize that safety management is a specialized field that requires insight, dedication and experience. And the safety professional spends their days ensuring EHS best practices are applied in a host of ways to prevent injuries and keep people safe.

But just as safety management has evolved, so too has our collective understanding of what causes safety incidents in the first place. We still recognize the importance of wearing PPE and paying attention to environmental hazards and other dangers. However, we also understand that we need safety management systems that manage human factors just as well as they manage hazards and other ‘old-school’ occupational health and safety issues.

Here’s a recently published white paper making the case for why it’s essential for organizations to attend to human factors in their safety management systems:

In the context of workplace safety, human factors management is an essential element to reducing incidents. In the past ten years, there has been a high volume of safety research and numerous advancements in safety management systems. And yet U.S. fatalities are up slightly at 3.5 per 100,000 workers, and non-fatal occupational injuries have been relatively static for 2006-2017 at roughly 2,800 per 100,000.1 Furthermore, the inclusion of human factors elements within revised standards such as ISO 45001, ANSI Z10 and NFPA 70E ensure that further emphasis will be expected within the safety profession in the coming months and years.

This is a challenge that many companies are still in the midst of tackling. Human factors can be a tricky problem to solve, even if you already have a rigorous SMS in place. Here are three key ways for organizations to get a better structural change in managing human error.

Understand human factors management at a leadership level

One of the fundamental concepts in human factors training is making sure that workers understand what they are and how they work. If you want people to better manage their own fatigue, they first have to understand why being tired is potentially dangerous.

The same is true of managing human factors at an organizational level. Before you can start embedding human factors management principles in your existing safety systems, your safety and business leaders need to have a solid understanding of what they’re dealing with.

This means making sure the senior business managers have a good grasp of how human factors can circulate throughout an organization, increasing the risk of error and injuries in various ways.

It’s hard to make forward-thinking decisions about your safety management systems if members of the leadership group have an asymmetrical recognition of the impact that fatigue, frustration and other states can have on organizational performance.

The best way to get them all on the same page? Educate the entire leadership group at the same time. Obviously, there’s a huge opportunity cost to gathering senior business leaders together to learn about human factors. Fortunately, this need for efficacy is one of the core design influences in a program like SafeFactor.

In only a half-day, it’s able to get senior executives and operational managers up to speed on human factors, offering a practical understanding of how to identify gaps in organizational systems and improve trends in safety, employee engagement and production. Simply, it may be the most efficient way to ensure your entire leadership team recognizes the problem and can begin charting a course to potential solutions.

Document human factors in the safety management system

Once there’s a high-level understanding of how human factors work, the next step is to develop a clear picture of how they operate in your specific organization. The goal here is to recognize where human error is most likely to occur so that you can make targeted improvements to your safety management system.

The best place to start is with a human factors framework that accounts for the various types of systems that make up your organization, as well as for the ways in which these systems interact with one another.

Why is a framework like this so valuable? To quote the safety white paper again:

[An] integrative framework will help organizations to better understand how human factors function in work environments. It can be deployed in a variety of live and training scenarios to help workers recognize how human factors function around them. As a result, lessons learned from using this framework allows organizations to manage human factors, and improve safety outcomes and worker reliability in the workplace.

It allows companies to recognize what is going on in their worksites while also providing a roadmap to developing a safety management system that better manages human factors. It is both a diagnostic tool and a goal post.

Leverage happiness, engagement, and culture to better manage human factors

Several decades ago, Larry Wilson started sounding the alarm about the dangers of human factors in industrial safety. At the time, few people had a practical understanding of what human factors are. But after years of speaking about human error, many safety folks are now much more aware of the rushing, frustration, fatigue, and complacency. Think of them as The Big Four—the four mental and physical states that most commonly affect the risk of an incident occurring.

But while those four states might be the most well-known human factors, they are hardly the only ones. And recent research by New York Times-bestselling author Rodd Wagner has revealed another factor that has flown relatively under the radar: happiness.

As Wagner notes in his article “Why Happiness is the Secret Ingredient of Worker Safety”:

[T]he data show less engaged people are, in fact, worse at self-preservation. Safety is not only positively correlated with engagement, it is one of the strongest connections between attitude and outcome. Something different, something deeper, something perhaps partially subconscious, is happening to make workers with lower morale more hazardous to themselves and their colleagues. 

There is a direct link between worker happiness and workplace safety. As Wagner argues in his article, one way to make safer employees is to better engage them. And while engagement may seem like it has nothing to do with your safety management systems, it’s actually the exact opposite.

Does your safety management system manage human factors?

As the human factors framework shows us, there is a strong two-way connection between individual performance and organizational outcomes. This is true with production metrics and it’s true with safety as well. The challenge facing EHS professionals is how to effectively deal with human factors using a safety management system.

Most companies already have an SMS in place as a cornerstone of their occupational health and safety program, and it’s a matter of embedding human factors within the existing system. Often, that requires beginning with a shared understanding among the management team about what human factors are and how they operate.

From there, a human factors framework can offer a robust yet flexible way to manage human error within a safety management system and throughout the entire organization. It’s valuable both as a way to diagnose ongoing problems as well as to target how you’d like your SMS to manage human factors in the future.

To that end, placing an emphasis on happiness and engagement metrics can lead to long-term success in mitigating the dangers of human factors. It can help you get employee buy-in for human factors training and will make it easier for you to sustain the initial benefits of that training.

All of which is to say that managing human errors is no small feat, but it’s worth it to take these steps to leverage your current SMS properly. Doing so can make it much easier to turn what feels like an ad-hoc process into a sustainable and viable way to use existing safety systems to properly manage human factors.

On-demand webinar

Using a Human Factors Framework for Safety and Operational Excellence

It can be hard to see the connection between safety, productivity, human factors and organizational systems. This webinar will demonstrate how a human factors framework can impact all areas of an organization, linking individual worker safety and organizational systems and provide an outline that allows leadership to manage safety-focused change.

Watch now

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