How do human factors affect health and safety?

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Human Factors

The HSE definition of human factors is:

“Human factors refer to environmental, organisational and job factors, and human and individual characteristics which influence behaviour at work in a way which can affect health and safety.”

A simple way to view human factors is to think about three aspects:

  • the organisation
  • the job
  • the individual

…and how they impact on people’s health and safety-related behaviour.

The individual and the job come together to create a risk interface. The job takes place within the context of the organisational culture – this is often the greatest influence on workplace behaviour.

In this article, we’ll look more closely at organisational factors. Job and individual factors will be covered in the next article.

Organisational Factors

Organisational factors have the greatest influence on individual and group behaviour, yet they are often overlooked during the design of work and during the investigation of accidents and incidents. A number of organisational factors have been found to be associated with good safety performance. Some key ones are:

Leadership

Crucial to a positive health and safety culture. This commitment produces higher levels of motivation and concern for health and safety throughout the organisation. It is best indicated by the proportion of resources (time, money, people) and support allocated to health and safety management and by the status given to health and safety. The active involvement of senior management in the health and safety system is very important. Managers need to be seen to lead by example when it comes to health and safety.

Management style

A ‘humanistic’ approach to management involving more regard by managers for individuals’ personal and work problems is likely to be effective. This assumes direct and rapid action to identify and resolve individual problems in an appropriately caring and concerned manner.

Visible management

Very important for a health and safety culture. Good managers appear regularly on the ‘shop floor’ and talk about health and safety. Staff need to believe that all their managers are committed to health and safety.

Good communications

A high level of communication between and within levels of the organisation and comprehensive formal and informal communications. An ‘open door’ policy may be helpful with direct access to the management hierarchy where appropriate. In a positive culture, questions about health and safety should be part of everyday work conversations. This flows from ownership – the encouragement of personal responsibility and participation by everyone in health and safety measures.

Learning organisation

The organisation continually improves its own methods and learns from mistakes.

External pressures

Pressures from outside the organisation including a buoyant financial state of the organisation, and the impact of regulatory bodies.

Committed resources

Time, money and staff devoted to health and safety showing strong evidence of commitment.

Participation

Staff at different levels in the organisation identify hazards, suggest control measures, provide feedback, and feel they ‘own’ safety procedures.

Balance of productivity and safety

the need for production is properly balanced against health and safety so that the latter are not ignored. A balance of health and safety and production goals. People may believe that high standards of health and safety mean slower work rates and attempts to increase production may be made through ‘cutting corners’. However, excessive production pressure creates an atmosphere of distraction and a shortage of time which makes human errors more likely. Excessive pressure may give rise to physical or mental health effects in some employees, and to a higher rate of ‘violations’ of health and safety rules. In a positive culture, health and safety is regarded as important, is promoted, and is not compromised.

High-quality training

Training is properly managed, the content is well-chosen and the quality is high. Counting the hours spent on training is not enough.

Work Environment

A clean and comfortable working environment, including general housekeeping, the design and layout of the plant.

Job satisfaction

Confidence, trust and recognition of good safety performance impact.

Workforce composition

A significant proportion of older, more experienced and socially stable workers. This group tend to have fewer accidents, lower absenteeism and less turnover.

Work patterns

Many organisations operate work shift systems, involving work at night, or working very extended hours. Such working patterns can lead to adverse effects on health, particularly for night workers. Reduced levels of performance have been associated with night working which can also increase the likelihood of accidents and ill health. Some people experience severe fatigue at work. This can lead to poorer performance on tasks which require attention, decision-making or high levels of skill. For safety-critical work, the effects of fatigue can give rise to increased risks. However, all too often, fatigue is seen as a familiar and acceptable part of everyday life. Working long hours may even be accepted in the culture of a workplace as ‘the thing to do’.

Our IOSH and NEBOSH courses cover how to effectively manage human factors.

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