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Frontline Fundamentals: HP Principle One: People Screw Up

The first principle of human performance (HP) is that people are fallible and even the best make mistakes, or in simpler terms, people screw up. How error-prone are we? Studies vary, but for our purposes, we will use an average of five mistakes per hour. That’s a lot of mistakes, and a scary thing to think about is we often are not aware of our mistakes.

Let’s consider how this relates to safety, and more specifically, how HP Principle One needs to be incorporated into your safety and health management system. Safety programs tend to be based on the concept that if there is a rule and the rule is good, people will always follow the rule and perform perfectly, which simply is not the case.

While it would be fantastic if no one ever made another mistake – no one tripped and fell in the right-of-way, no one skipped a step in a switching procedure, no one dropped a tool from a bucket, no one forgot to look before backing – that is not realistic, and it is irresponsible to assume mistakes will not happen.

Executives, managers, supervisors and safety professionals, you need to acknowledge that mistakes will happen, and ensure safety by design and defense in depth are being utilized to protect your employees from their mistakes. Utilize these concepts, and the consequences of errors will have little impact on the safety and health of the workforce. If you are responsible for investigating incidents, don’t forget to put yourself in employees’ shoes as you examine motivation, perhaps thinking about what you might have done in a similar situation. People rarely intend to hurt themselves, and part of your job during an incident investigation is to think about employees’ decisions, which likely made sense to them at the time. Be careful about the tendency toward Monday morning quarterbacking that starts with, “Here’s how I would have done that job and that would never happen to me.” If you haven’t already, educate yourself on organizational HP tools such as benchmarking, observations and self-assessments. Being critical of people does not engender appreciation of the value of investigations and cooperation.

It is also important to understand errors. Different types – such as slips, mistakes, lapses and violations – have different causes and need different corrective actions. There is a litany of factors that increase the chances of making errors, such as assumptions; habits; biases, which include confirmation, similarity, frequency and availability; stress; risk tolerance; emotions; and social factors. There are active errors, latent errors, errors of commission and errors of omission. All of them need to be identified and addressed to reduce errors.

Do you want to know how you are doing? It is very simple. If you are having repeated incidents, there is room for improvement. If you are not, make sure you understand the behavior driving your results and seek continuous improvement. Safety is not something you accomplish once.

Frontline supervisors, general foremen, foremen, crew leaders and frontline workers, to be safe you must have situational awareness and accurately identify and effectively mitigate hazards. You need to use HP tools such as self-checking to give yourself time to make good decisions, and procedure use and adherence to focus your attention and maintain positive control of your work. When you are working as part of a team, which you almost always are, use effective communication and verification practices. Eliminate overconfidence and become aware of your risk tolerance level, biases and mental strain. Perhaps most important is to educate yourself on normalization of deviation and be sure you establish and adhere to high, uncompromising standards. That requires you to know the standards, plan work to the standards and follow the plan.

It is also important to understand that HP Principle One – people are fallible – is not an excuse or a get-out-of-jail-free card for not performing to the standards and to the best of your ability. Understanding HP and utilizing HP tools should increase both your responsibility for safety and your desire to be held accountable to high, uncompromising standards.

Your test is simple. Have you had incidents in which you “dodged a bullet” or “got lucky”? Have you been injured or found in violation of standards? Do you take shortcuts? Do you value work planning tools like pre-job briefings, or do you go through the motions? Do you sit through training or participate in it?

Finally, think about this: What do you do before a fishing trip, a trip to the store or a visit to the doctor? It is likely you plan, and you plan well. You probably already use HP planning tools effectively; you just need to use them at work. The same holds true when it comes to performing tasks. Do you incorporate safety into hunting and fishing? Do you communicate with your family and ensure everyone stays together in crowded places like airports? Do you speak up if your child is riding their bicycle toward the road? You know how to be safe and eliminate risk tolerance. You know how to be a safety leader.

The key takeaways are to adhere to high, uncompromising standards of work, utilize HP tools to reduce errors, acknowledge errors will occur and protect people from them.

About the Author: David McPeak, CUSP, CET, CHST, CSP, CSSM, is the director of professional development for Utility Business Media’s Incident Prevention Institute ( His experience includes operations management, safety and training roles. McPeak holds multiple safety and training certifications and has received numerous awards. He also has served as chairman of Task Team One of the OSHA ET&D Partnership, as a member of Incident Prevention’s editorial advisory board and as a member of the North Carolina Apprenticeship Council. Reach him at

About Frontline: The Frontline program provides interactive, engaging classroom training that empowers employees to become better utility safety leaders. Subject matter experts facilitate the learning process and cover four areas – safety leadership, incident prevention, human performance, and standards and operations – critical to safety success. Visit for more information.


Webinar on HP Principle One: People Screw Up
March 14 at 3 p.m. Eastern
Visit for more information.

Leadership Development, Frontline Fundamentals


About the Author: David McPeak, CUSP, CIT, CHST, CSP, CSSM, is the Director of Education for Utility Business Media’s Incident Prevention Institute ( and the author of "Frontline Leadership – The Hurdle" and "Frontline Incident Prevention – The Hurdle". He has extensive experience and expertise in leadership, human performance, safety and operations. McPeak is passionate about personal and professional development and believes that intrapersonal and interpersonal skills are key to success. He also is an advanced certified practitioner in DISC, emotional intelligence, the Hartman Value Profile, learning styles and motivators. Reach him at