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Frontline Fundamentals: Human Performance: What Is It and Why Should We Study It?

Please take a few moments to think about the following questions:

  • Should a vice president tell his employees, “I only want new mistakes”?
  • Is telling a 10-year-old baseball pitcher to throw strikes a good way to teach him how to pitch?
  • When is the last time you provided positive reinforcement for safety behavior, or do you consider safe work a part of the job that shouldn’t be praised?
  • How do your frontline workers feel when you say zero injuries is the goal and nothing else is acceptable?
  • Do most of your post-incident corrective actions involve administrative controls such as retraining and targeted observations?
  • Imagine one of your employees rear-ends another vehicle and does $100 in damage to an older-model sedan with high mileage. Another employee does the same thing but hits a new luxury SUV and does $10,000 in damage. Are both vehicle collisions investigated? Do both employees receive the same disciplinary action?
  • Would you spank your child because they spilled their milk? Would that keep them from spilling it again?
  • How does it help someone when you say, “Be safe,” and are you doing it for them or yourself?

Here are two additional questions you should carefully consider, as they are the ultimate test of your safety program’s effectiveness. If your answer to either one is yes, there is room for improvement and an opportunity to add human performance (HP) principles into your program.

  • Do the same kinds of incidents continue to occur at your organization?
  • When incidents happen, are you left in disbelief that they happened, about how they happened and about who they happened to?

The Need for HP
In too many cases, safety has created a culture in which fear is the sole motivator. Employees are threatened with job loss or unpaid time off if they have a recordable injury; contractors are threatened they will lose contracts if they have injuries or exceed certain thresholds; and organizations fear sharing information about incidents because of how their legal team or regulatory agencies may react.

There also seems to be an unwritten rule that when you become a manager, supervisor or member of the safety team, you must give up all sanity, common sense, reason and ability to relate to frontline workers so you can focus on being politically correct and compliant.

To make things worse, some safety management focus has become more concerned with improving numbers – such as recordable rates – than with protecting and improving people. It is OK to get hurt if you don’t go to the doctor, and it is OK to get hurt and go to the doctor as long as you don’t get a prescription or medical treatment beyond first aid that would make your case recordable.

On top of all that, people are losing their jobs, pay and incentives when they get hurt performing a task per the correct standards and to the best of their ability. If you don’t believe that, think about losing a bonus because you had a recordable injury when another vehicle rear-ended you while you were stopped at a red light with your seat belt on. Or, consider your entire workgroup getting kicked off a customer’s system because one of your employees was killed when a member of the public – who was texting while driving – struck the back of the bucket truck while your employee was working with the bucket elevated. Maybe you strain your shoulder using a crimping tool, get labeled an at-risk employee and then – after you blow out your knee while climbing a pole using proper work methods and fall protection – you are terminated for repeated injuries in a 12-month period.

I believe all of these outcomes are what can occur when HP is not incorporated into safety. And I believe HP is not incorporated into safety because many people in the utility industry have limited exposure to the subject and do not understand it. I believe these things strongly enough that this article and its related webinar – along with all six of the 2018 Frontline Fundamentals articles and their related webinars – will be dedicated to HP.

HP Defined
The definitions of HP and human factors found below come from the “Human Performance Improvement Handbook, Volume 1: Concepts and Principles” published by the U.S. Department of Energy. This, in addition to Volume 2, which focuses on HP tools, is a fantastic resource that you should download at and become familiar with.

  • Human performance: A series of behaviors executed to accomplish specific results (performance = behavior + results).
  • Human factors: The study of how human beings function within various work environments as they interact with equipment in the performance of various roles and tasks.

Simply stated, HP is understanding why people do what they do the way they do it.

The Goals of HP
HP has two goals – to reduce errors and manage controls. “Reduce” is the key word here. Never assume that because you have a correct rule or procedure in place, people will always follow it without making errors. Safety programs must acknowledge that people make errors, seek to understand why errors occur to reduce or eliminate future errors, and protect workers from their errors (i.e., manage controls).

No matter what you are doing or what part of your safety program you are focusing on, incorporating HP will help. As an example, would your accident investigations improve and result in finding more actionable causes and contributing factors if you started by asking, were the actions intended and, if so, were the consequences intended? Rarely do you have an instance in which both were intended. Now look at your incident investigations. Are they focused more on blaming and correcting people, or are they focused on building and improving systems and eliminating latent organizational weaknesses? 

Ultimately, it is important to study HP so we can apply HP tools that give us time to make good decisions, focus us on our tasks and allow us to maintain positive control – which means that what we intend to happen is what happens, and that is all that happens. Like all other tools, you must be trained on HP tools and utilize the proper ones as they are intended. 

I hope this article has sparked your interest in HP and that you will take a critical look at your safety and health management system, your programs, how you interact with others, how incidents are investigated, and how you define and communicate your expectations around safety. Again, I strongly encourage you to study the HP handbooks from the U.S. Department of Energy and to continue reading this series of articles and participating in the webinars.

Finally, please email me at with any HP-related questions or topics you would like to see addressed.

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 Human Performance: What Is It and Why Should We Study It?
January 17 at 3 p.m. Eastern
Visit for more information.

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