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.