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The Case for Managing Human Factors at Heights
Employers are told that they need to follow certain safety regulations to keep people safe when they’re working at heights. But—to be blunt—those measures aren’t enough. Every day, human factors like fatigue, complacency and the normalization of risk can lead to people falling from heights in the workplace, resulting in serious injury or death. If an organization doesn’t have a practical plan to deal with those human factors then it’s not doing enough to protect employees working at heights.
Working at heights is the second-biggest cause of workplace deaths, second only to fatal motor crashes. And contrary to popular belief, working at extreme heights is not the only deadly part of the equation. One-quarter of people who fell to their deaths did so from less than ten feet in the air. What makes working at any elevation so dangerous is how unforgiving it can be. A single mistake might seem minor if you’re working on the ground, but tripping over your own feet and losing your balance can result in a trip to the emergency room for people working at heights.
As dangerous as working at heights is for employees who have to labor one or more stories up, it can be just as hazardous for people on the ground. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a dropped-object injury occurs every ten minutes on average. Plus, even if no one is struck by falling objects, retrieving tools that have fallen can lead to frustrating production delays.
Workers continue to die from lower-level falls at unprecedented rates, despite a plethora of equipment designed to keep people safe. The challenge isn’t a lack of safety equipment. Instead, the problem emerges when an unforgiving work environment combines with human error, and the risk of working at heights is normalized. When that happens, the probability of falls goes way, way up.
Human Factors at Heights
Human factors may be the most perennially misunderstood concept in safety. However, the basic contours of the topic are quite straightforward: the physical and mental state of a person can affect how safely they do their jobs. This is why workers who are tired, for example, are more likely to be injured, whereas workers who are completely focused on the task at hand are less likely to get hurt.
Because working at heights means that employees are literally teetering on the brink for much of their day, and their margin for error is so thin, even a slight increase in the likelihood of making a mistake as a result of human factors could dramatically alter the prospect of a fall. For people working at heights, the ability to contend with fatigue, distraction and other human factors is very often the difference between needing to rely on a fall arrest harness or not—that is, if they remembered to wear a fall harness in the first place.
One only needs to take a glance at the statistics to see just how deadly human factors can be for people working at elevation. In particular, complacency and the desensitization of risk can dramatically skew workers’ perceptions of how dangerous it can be to labor at heights.
Notably, the most common height to fall from is between six and 10 feet, and four out of every 10 fall-related deaths happen from 15 feet or less. These are hardly dizzying heights—less than a single story of a building—but that’s exactly what makes them so dangerous. Because relatively modest heights don’t seem scary to workers, they quickly become numb to the very real possibility of falling and seriously hurting themselves. This, in turn, can sway people’s perception of the need to follow working-at-height safety requirements, such as wearing appropriate PPE.
The end result is that people who routinely work at heights often fail to adequately safeguard themselves from the risk of falling. When that happens, they’re only a misstep away from a serious or fatal injury.
There are several steps that safety professionals can take to safeguard workers from the additional risk posed by human factors. For people who are working at heights, effectively managing human factors can have a doubly positive effect. First, managing these factors can halt the slide into full-blown complacency. Secondly, it can help mitigate the additional dangers posed by human factors, no matter what degree of complacency and risk normalization has set in.
For companies that regularly perform work at heights, there are three main areas to consider in order to begin properly managing human factors. Provided here is a quick overview, but as with any complex safety issue, organizations should conduct an in-depth study of their current situation and compare it with human-factors best practices, under the guidance of an experienced safety consultant.
Train Employees on Human Factors
Employees who regularly work at high elevations don’t need to be told that a fall is bad for their health. What’s less self-evident are the factors that may contribute to a fall and the actual likelihood of an incident occurring. People chronically overestimate their own ability and are likely to downplay the dangers of rushing, illness, confusion and other factors, while inflating their personal capability of overcoming these factors.
Enter human factors training, which can recalibrate workers’ perception of risk and understanding of mental and physical states that may compromise their safety. Ideally, this will give employees a stronger sense of personal situational awareness when they start working above ground level.
The goal is to give workers the ability to recognize human factors in real time and then adjust their actions accordingly to account for any temporary variance in their ability. Just as someone would take extra steps to stay awake when they’re in the middle of a long drive and realize that they’re exhausted, it’s important to give workers a set of techniques that will help them notice when human factors are making them less safe and then take action to avoid a potentially disastrous incident.
Educate Supervisors on Managing Human Factors
Supervisors and direct managers are the cog that connects organizational intention and worker action. As such, they are essential drivers of not only production but also of keeping workers safe when they get things done. In many cases, they represent the last opportunity to check in with people before they begin working at heights.
Consider the case of a worker who is visibly sleep-deprived because they have a new child at home. A supervisor who knows about human risk factors is more likely to recognize the danger this poses to the worker. That same supervisor will also be better positioned to intervene to mitigate the risk, either by adjusting the employee’s working conditions or by reminding them of key safety concerns that they might otherwise forget because they’re tired.
Supervisors can provide periodic refreshers about dealing with human factors in the form of toolbox talks and other safety-focused conversations. They can also facilitate discussions among co-workers about scenarios in which they’ve encountered human risk factors on the job. Peer-to-peer sharing of real-world experiences is one of the best ways to help keep human factors awareness at the front of people’s minds. It’s also a good way to share effective, context-relevant tactics for staying safe when mental and physical states conspire to increase the risk of working at heights.
Identify Structural Issues that May Induce Human Factors
In many cases, organizational systems and work structures can inadvertently create new human factors or amplify existing ones. Either way, it’s worth taking a look at each worksite’s daily and weekly processes to see if they are unintentionally making things more dangerous for workers at heights.
For example, tight deadlines may induce employees to work at a faster pace than they normally would, increasing the likelihood of making a mistake. Similarly, not providing sufficient breaks may mean workers are more fatigued in the last few hours of their shift. More subtle factors may also cause problems. A failure to adjust to changing conditions, such as weather or other large-scale environmental factors, could lead to an increased risk of injury.
Finally, it’s worth noting that some organizational conditions are unavoidable but can still pose human factors-related challenges. Delays in production or permit-related holdups can lead to frustration and confusion among workers, and while it may not be the company’s fault, they must ensure that it doesn’t result in additional safety concerns for their workers.
Responsible employers already meet the working-at-heights compliance standards for their specific work situations. Unfortunately, over 120 people are injured and two people are killed every day from falls. Many of them work for responsible employers. Clearly, more needs to be done to address the escalating number of serious falls in the workplace.
It’s time for every safety professional to take a hard look at their working-at-heights safety plan and ask themselves, “Am I doing enough to address the human factors that are putting my people at a greater risk?” If the answer is no, then an examination of organizational pressures and additional training for employees and supervisors are imperative.
This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.