A few years ago, as I challenged my beliefs about incident prevention, human error and safety performance, I realized that something was not quite right. Throughout my career, I had noticed that despite controls and intervention programs, some dedicated, caring workers occasionally had on-the-job incidents that were classified as human error. These incidents resulted in corrective actions designed to “make” that employee follow all established safety measures and take the time to safely perform assigned tasks.
I realized I needed to better understand current thinking about worker error and safety outcomes, so I sought additional information. I started by reading Todd Conklin’s Pre-Accident Investigations. Then I listened to several of his podcasts and attended two recent conference sessions in which he participated as a panelist.
That piqued my interest in learning more about human and organizational performance, so I asked Todd to share additional insight. I’d like to share some of the thoughts he offered.
“The study of human error and safety really boils down to the changing way our profession is seeing workers,” he explains. “Traditional safety sees the worker as the problem to be fixed (safety is an individual intervention—fix one worker at a time). And because the worker is where the risk problem exists, we would somehow constrain the workers, either tell them what to do or what not to do, then observe workers using elaborate tracking systems to get better behavior which, in turn, should create better safety outcomes for an organization.” He explains that these programs are often characterized as hearts and minds. “If the workers would care more and try harder, we would be safe,” he says.
Many believed these “care more” programs were an effective way to get better, faster, he says, but that view is flawed. “These programs assume that workers either don’t know or don’t care, and that is really not what the data show.”
That’s why the safety community’s focus on “honest mistakes” (or worker error as we often label it) is somewhat perplexing. “Error is actually normal, uninteresting and never causal. It’s not really important,” Todd explains. While he agrees we need to build error-tolerant systems (systems that can recover when error occurs), he believes “stopping or improving error is simply a gigantic waste of time and energy.”
Instead, OSH professionals need to adopt a new view of safety, one that sees workers as the problem solvers, not as the problem. “Worker’s don’t get better because we ask them to care more and try harder,” he says. “Workers get more reliable when we ask them what they need in order to be safer. We also have to change our target from the absence of an accident to the presence of safeguards.”
That approach presents a new path for us as OSH professionals. “Our opportunity is in the recognition that the workers hold the key to creating safe outcomes,” Todd says. “We no longer need to try to fix the workers. We need to harness the intellect and skills the workers bring to our workplace to create production and safety success.”
Most of us recognize that no one knows more about the equipment being used and the tasks being performed than the workers. But by challenging our own beliefs and looking at workers through a different lens, we can better engage our workers in implementing safety and health controls, programs and processes. And we all know that a meaningfully engaged workforce is a core component of any successful OSH management system.
Our professional toolbox includes a collection of diverse tools that we can use to help our employers prevent occupational fatalities, injuries and illnesses and safeguard physical assets. We will get the most from these tools when we truly partner with our employees to apply them in our workplaces.