Special Topics in Safety Management

Watch Out for Three Common "Error Traps"

A system approach to human error and workplace accidents puts the emphasis on safety management and the “system defences” that prevent accidents.

In yesterday’s Advisor, we discussed Dr. James Reason’s assertion that the best way to prevent workplace accidents is to take a system approach and look at “error traps” in the workplace that give rise to accidents, rather than taking a person approach and focusing on human fallibility, which is inevitable.

Reason’s view of human error and workplace safety is shared by Dr. Dan Petersen, a safety professional and consultant for more than 50 years and author of the book Human Error Reduction and Safety Management.

In an interview with BLR four years before his death in 2007 Petersen said, “Human error occurs not because humans are stupid or clumsy, although some of us are, but usually because management systems and designs have trapped them into error.” 

Petersen identified three categories of human error.

1. Overload. “The human being cannot help but err if given a heavier workload than he or she has the capacity to handle,” he said. Load involves physical, physiological, or psychological capacity, state of mind, level of knowledge and skill relevant to the task at hand, and any reduction in capability resulting from drug or alcohol use, pressure, fatigue, etc. Other contributing factors are work environment, motivation, attitude, and personal problems.


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2. The decision to err. Among reasons workers might choose the unsafe act are factors like peer pressure and pressure from the boss to produce that make unsafe behavior seem preferable. Another example is low perceived probability, which means the worker simply does not believe he or she will suffer an accident.

3. Traps left for the worker. In such cases, the worker errs because the work environment is incompatible with the individual’s physique or with what he or she is used to, in other words, a bad fit. Another such trap is workplace design that is conducive to human error, such as hard-to-read controls or a workstation that is cramped, dark, or otherwise difficult to operate in. The organizational culture can also serve as a trap by encouraging or discouraging certain behaviors. For example, does the culture promote the notion that workers should report signs of ergonomic distress early on, or does it reward them for hiding symptoms? Does the culture preach a concern for safety, but demonstrate the opposite in practice? Does the culture seek safety- and health-related ideas and assistance from employees or reject their participation?


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Accident Prevention Training

You may not be able to eliminate human fallibility, but you can certainly minimize the impact of human error by providing frequent safety training that targets specific workplace hazards, heightens awareness, and explains systems and procedures designed to prevent accidents.

Training your employees to avoid the mistakes that lead to accidents is what Safety Meeting Repros is all about. This easy-to-use training resource contains 50 completely turnkey safety meeting modules, each responsive to a key OSHA regulation, with trainee materials in reproducible form.

Modules include basic safety topics such as safety attitude, employee OSHA rights, and accident prevention, along with sessions on specific safety concerns such as:

  • Emergency response
  • PPE
  • Material handling
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  • Electrical safety
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  • Wellness
  • Workplace violence
  • Safe Driving

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