Incident Prevention Magazine

Mark J. Steinhofer, CHST, CSP, CUSP

Don’t Blame People for Human Error

The first lineman scaled the pole and tried to perform the task on the conductor. After a minute or so, the supervisor yelled, “You’re doing that wrong!,” told the lineman he was incompetent and sent a second lineman up the pole in his place. The second lineman started the task only to hear, “That’s not how it’s done!” before returning to the ground. A third lineman took a deep breath before he climbed. He looked over the job and started to work. Soon the supervisor bellowed, “What’s wrong with you? That won’t work!”

This scenario illustrates the way the utility construction industry traditionally has dealt with human error: by blaming people instead of flawed processes. The supervisor assumed the linemen were making mistakes instead of reasoning that there must have been a fundamental flaw in the task or their training.

What is Human Error?
We define human error as undesirable human decisions or behaviors that reduce or may reduce safety and effectiveness. Errors typically fall into one of four categories:

  1. Mistakes result from ignorance of the correct task or the correct way to perform it.
  2. Mismatches occur when tasks are beyond the physical or mental ability of the person asked to perform them.
  3. Noncompliance or violations happen because someone decided not to carry out a task or did not carry it out in the way instructed or expected.
  4. Slips and lapses result from forgetfulness, habit, fatigue or similar causes.

Blaming individuals is the easy way out, and it doesn’t prevent errors. For one thing, sometimes the best people make the worst mistakes. And second, mishaps are anything but random; they tend to fall into recurring patterns.

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Mark J. Steinhofer, CHST, CSP, CUSP

The Silent Secret About Successful Safety Communication

The Silent Secret About Successful Safety Communication

It’s a chilly morning, and the crew is eager to make progress on the substation upgrade before tomorrow’s snow. A shiny pickup truck pulls up to the job site, the driver’s door opens and out walks a good-looking guy in neatly pressed khakis, a white button-down shirt and highly polished lace-up shoes. He stops a couple yards away from the crew, looks at everyone, breaks into a cheesy smile and makes a joke about his golf game.

Nobody laughs or even snickers. After an awkward pause, “Joe Office” tells the crew that fall protection is the day’s safety discussion topic. He points to one of the crew members and mentions that he saw him working without a harness yesterday, and that isn’t acceptable. He drones through the rest of the lesson and asks if anyone has any questions. There’s no response from the crew, so Joe Office grins again and tells everyone to stay safe as they shuffle off to the day’s tasks.

Words Mean Little
What Joe Office doesn’t realize is that nobody paid attention to anything he said. Oh, they heard him just fine, but Joe lost most of the crew members before he opened his mouth, and the rest tuned out within the first 30 seconds of hearing him speak. They pretended to listen while they thought about other things.

It’s true that Joe Office knows a lot about safety. Unfortunately, he has no clue what his body language projects and can’t read the body language of the workers with whom he’s communicating. As a result, in this scenario he wasted everyone’s time and had zero effect on the crew’s well-being.

The fact is that humans do far more listening with our eyes than we do with our ears. According to Mehrabian and Wiener, and Mehrabian and Ferris, when a verbal message is delivered, a typical human being only receives about 7 percent of the message via the words that are spoken. Thirty-eight percent of how a person receives a message is due to the way those words are delivered. And a full 55 percent of the message is conveyed through the speaker’s body language.

In other words, when a safety professional speaks to a group of workers, the nonverbal components of his or her message have a far greater impact on listeners than what’s actually being said. The professional’s physical appearance, body language, tone and pace of voice determine how carefully the workers will listen and how much they’ll retain.

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