Human factors are so prominent in every system and situation, that there isn’t a safety, quality, engineering, or production team that hasn’t struggled with them. But these diverse implications have led to a variety of definitions, incomplete understandings, inadequate approaches and a lot of headaches for managers.
Human factors are more than just ergonomics, human error, and systems engineering. However they’re defined, be sure it is broad enough to include both individuals and systems—if you don’t address those two main elements, you’ll struggle to be effective in human factors management.
Addressing the human and technical systems concurrently isn’t easy, but with significant challenges often comes significant opportunities. When done right, human factors management has a strong track record of improving all kinds of organizational outcomes, from fewer injuries to better production results in a reliable and sustainable way.
Are you working on multiple levels?
When people think of human factors in safety, they tend to take one of two approaches—focusing on the people or focusing on the system. For some, the first thing that comes to mind is the way states like distraction and fatigue can affect how workers act. When people are tired or distracted, they’re less likely to notice a hazard they might otherwise avoid, or they’re more likely to make a mistake that could lead to a serious injury. If you can help workers notice when these states are present and train them on how to adjust their behavior accordingly, then the general belief is that they’re less likely to get hurt because of those states.
And yes, this thinking is correct. At a foundational level, that’s exactly how human factors can be mitigated, at an individual level. But it’s also only part of the picture because human factors don’t just occur on an individual level. They can also affect small teams of people in several ways; confusion or ambiguity in directions can affect multiple people at the same time, or factors like overconfidence that affect one person can have a spillover effect on that person’s peer group.
At an organizational level, human factors can become entrenched in technical systems and processes. They can also become exacerbated on a wide scale by leadership-level decisions or alterations to workflows—look no further than how a sudden change to production timelines can cause a flurry of rushing, which can lead to injuries and can also be a catalyst for a second wave of human factors like fatigue to set in.
You’re treating the symptom but not the disease if you’re only managing human factors at an individual level, and the long-term benefits will be limited. Instead, your human factors management plan needs to take into account the ways in which individuals, small teams, systems and processes, and the organization as a whole interact and work together to stay safe and make improvements.
Do you have an accurate picture?
Managing human factors on multiple levels sounds like a lot of work—and it can be. But it’s much easier if you have an accurate picture of your current strengths and weaknesses in that regard, as well as a detailed image of what success looks like.
The first step is to conduct a proper assessment of your organization’s current performance in human factors management. This can range from an informal self-diagnostic to a proper audit.
It’s worth noting here that while you can perform the assessment yourself, as we’ve noted elsewhere, there’s a lot of value to be had in bringing in an experienced third party to conduct an impartial assessment:
Bringing in someone from the outside will allow you to get an impartial assessment of your safety program. It’s the quickest and most effective way to avoid the biased perspectives, legacy thinking and other baggage that invariably comes with internal reviews.
A third party also has the additional benefit of a wider range of experiences at other organizations. This can help put things in perspective, more accurately benchmark your current safety performance, and help put your safety management system in context with industry standards.
As an article in Occupational Health & Safety magazine also points out, a safety consultant (or another third party) can reduce the overall cost of a safety review and can expedite the process.
It’s a good idea to have a sense of what the end goal of human factors management looks like. At SafeStart, we’ve developed a human factors framework that represents how human factors circulate at all levels throughout companies. The framework includes feedback loops to demonstrate how improvements can be made (or, going in the other direction, more dramatic deviations from the norm). And it highlights the ultimate goal—more reliable outcomes from worker actions.
The framework is useful both as a diagnostic tool and as a way to visualize where you want your organization to end up.
Are you settled in for the long haul?
Implementing a robust human factors management strategy takes time. There’s no getting around the basic fact that it can take months to conduct a proper assessment, evaluate potential vendors who can help you on your human factors journey, and then implement training for frontline workers, supervisors, and the leadership team. If implemented successfully, this will be followed by years of continuous improvement between the individuals at the frontline and the systems managers responsible for their safety.
And while you’re doing all that, there’s always the risk of losing focus or slipping behind, whether it’s because of distractions posed by competing priorities or a high employee turnover rate that means you’re constantly having to get new hires up to speed.
There is no silver bullet when it comes to managing human factors. It’s a process that’s worth sticking with it for the long haul, through all the ups and downs that come with any large safety initiative. But the good news is, that there are a couple of ways to make it a lot easier on yourself and expedite results.
The first is to follow the best practices of contending with human factors, including avoiding blame, securing leadership buy-in, and following the advice outlined above.
The second is to find a stable partner to help you implement human factors management principles into your current safety practices. Look for vendors with broad capabilities that can offer quick wins and complete solutions, a deep well of experience they can draw on, a playbook that identifies common patterns of success, flexible delivery models, pricing structures that offer stability and predictability in terms of cost, and a willingness to support your company through the twists and turns on the long road of human factors management.
Since human factors are always present in people, systems, safety and business, it is inevitable that you’ll need to figure out how to manage them eventually. But even though the journey is long, it is easy to get started and doesn’t need to be daunting day-to-day with the right frameworks, resources and partners.