ASSP Talks Human Error: Key Trends in Human Performance Presentations

A handful of speakers talked about human error during the three days of ASSP Safety 2020 Virtual. Here are some of the trends and key takeaways.

It’s easy to assume that a workplace injury or death was caused by human error, and figure that it was by the worker’s fault and not that of the company or system. But how do you measure human error and use cognitive science when it comes to decision-making? Thankfully, two presentations from this year’s virtual ASSP Safety 2020 helped me better understand human errors in the workplace.

On Tuesday, June 24 I listened to Bill Sims’s presentation titled “Green Beans, Ice Cream & HOP: Looking for Human Error,” and on June 25, I listened to John Barlew’s presentation titled “Skewed: Understanding the Mental Models Leading to Error.” These presentations had different ways of discussing human error and worker decision-making. However, their similarities spoke volumes.

Barlew opened with an interesting fact: frequencies of non-fatal injuries are decreasing in the workplace, but fatal injuries are plateauing and not decreasing. It is clear that we need to shift our thinking and learn more about human cognition and errors.

How do we do this? Well, Sims used a quote from the movie Sully: “You want to talk about human error? Make it human.”

Both Sims and Barlew explained that making human error “human” means looking at the external factors that impact a situation gone-wrong. If a worker is injured, employers need to consider other factors like stress, emotional tagging, memory queues, fatigue, positive reinforcement and more. Managers and employers need to focus less on teaching workers how to do their jobs (technically) and more on helping them with external emotional and cultural factors.

Examples of helping workers be safer on the job, and reducing the risk of workplace injury, include the following:

  • incorporating more positive reinforcement in a workplace that reinforce positive experience
  • helping workers manage stress and fatigue
  • promoting open sharing of experience and feedback

Sims and Barlew go in-depth in their presentation on how the brain works in real-time, high stress situations and how company culture affects safety. However, both emphasized that human error at a workplace injury or fatality are most likely because of other factors from leaderships, colleagues, safety culture and that individuals’ previous behavior.

The Safety 2020 virtual show was definitely unlike other years, but ASSP continued to provide helpful information for industry professionals. It is clear that the safety industry is as much about a worker’s physical safety as it is about his or her emotional and mental safety, too.

About the Author

Amanda Smiley is an Associate Content Editor for Occupational Health & Safety Magazine and 1105 Media.

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