An introduction to Human Performance – James Bird I Senior SHE Manager I Kier Highways
I have been in the construction sector for over 15 years progressing from a young operative to a senior safety practitioner in a large organisation and have seen a maturity in its safety health and wellbeing approach, fatalities and serious injuries have declined, yet it still remains one of the most hazardous occupations. I began to wonder how, with organisations constantly talking about safety, safety culture and more recently health and mental wellbeing.
Then I had a conversation which clarified my perspective, I was told how much an organisation was investing in health and safety, I asked where this investment was, training, PPE, health surveillance and campaigns were the response, it appeared meeting legal compliance, monitoring damage and telling the human about safety is the norm or even seen as best practice! There are of course pockets of exception where organisations have gone beyond but as a generalization as an industry, we have plateaued.
I was fortunate enough to attend the NEBOSH leadership in health and safety at the Health and Safety Laboratory with our leadership team, a course that stimulated great debate on what other industries have done to become high-reliability organisations. I visited the aviation, oil and gas, healthcare, manufacturing sectors, and the military, all had embraced human performance as the next step in their maturity journey, after a ground zero event.
We as construction are probably never going to have a piper alpha (167 dead) scale disaster but we do have a cumulative death rate of 143 a year and it is going up. My observation is that single deaths seem to be more socially acceptable than disasters especially if it only affects workers and not members of the public, a worker who ‘knew the risk’ and ‘made an error’ which lead to their demise, he was trained and competent and the company had a risk assessment and systems in place – yet he still died.
Through ground zero events, other industries have been stimulated to take action beyond legal compliance, they have reaped the benefits of less expenditure on incident costs and remediation, higher worker engagement and staff retention and better productivity. Do we as an industry need to wait for a ground zero stimulus – or can we proactively apply what others have done.
To begin working towards excellence we need to accept that effective change takes time, money, resource and leadership from the top, it cannot be seen as another initiative, it’s a journey that the whole organisation has to embark, believe and participate in over years to see a return. So for our organisational journey has taken a year and we are just introducing the concept wider than the core team.
So Human Performance what is it? Well it’s also known as Human and Organisational Factors or ergonomics and is a discipline concerned with the ‘fit’ between a person, process, machine and the purpose of the organisation. If we can make processes and machines simple and intuitive based around the users natural thought processes and physical limitations then let the human know what they are, we can proactively avoid, trap or mitigate human ‘errors’, a common incident causal factor.
The discipline can be split into 3 focus areas (Above):
All three areas are symbiotic and rely on each other to function, systems form the backbone, setting the cultural expectations, norms, and beliefs of the organisation, this instils accountability and responsibilities on individuals to fulfil their role, culture exists on a continuum between profit/delivery and people we need to be honest where we sit. This is supported by a restorative just culture where human error is analyzed, what performance influencing factors existed? Did the individual mean to do what they did? did it have the intended outcome? Without hindsight with the same conditions would another person make the same set of decisions? By better understanding this we can design in engineering solutions to prevent someone else from making the same error. The USAF discovered the importance of this in WW2 when returning planes kept crashing on landing, the lever for the landing flaps and landing gear were the same shape and next to each other! This part of learning relies on something to go wrong to be analyzed, the holy grail is to get individuals to self report their own errors before it escalates to a loss in a safe supportive way without fear of retribution.
Good risk management goes beyond typical risk assessment, looking at hazards as a positive we can understand ones we tolerate for our undertakings, understand what proactive and mitigative barriers we have, to control credible threats and how effective they. We can identify high hazard or monotonous tasks and focus automation and engineering solutions here to reduce the probability of human error. Procedures need to be simple and clear, written for the end-user and proportional to
risk not for perceived legal protection or long and complex masking critical information with fillers.
Current safety statistics are predominantly lagging indicators. Over time financial incentives have been attached to these measures for organisations and individuals leading to a reluctance to report for fear of reprisal reducing the effectiveness of learning. Of the leading indicators currently in use, most are linked to legal compliance like % of workforce trained, % of inspections completed, useful information but does not generally lead to organisational change. What if we start tracking % of works executed as planned or a number of human error potentials trapped?
With systems and equipment in place we need to coach our people to operate in this new environment, introducing non-technical skills – situational awareness, decision making, teamwork and site leadership, demonstrate the expectations of the business culture and the restorative just culture model. Employees need to believe and trust in the organisation and be able to escalate to the appropriate person when appropriate.
Human performance is hard work, people become accountable and has a certain implementation and development cost but how much effort do we put into investigating incidents, assuring clients and regulators, what’s the potential fine loss for your organisational size? What’s your brand reputation worth? Incidentally, Occidental Petroleum who managed piper alpha never operated in the North Sea again!