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Human and Organisational Factors - Do You Tick the Box?

Primitive, emotional, irrational - not exactly how most of us would characterise the workplace or indeed our thought processes and behaviours in it, but the best literature from the field of Human and Organisational Factors tells us these adjectives may be more applicable than we think.

Humans, it turns out, are not the paragons of logic we believe ourselves to be. When required to make complex decisions - especially under pressure - we self-righteously believe we apply our modern, intelligent ‘higher brains’, when in fact our emotional, ‘primitive brains’ play a much bigger part than we are aware. With almost shocking predictability we fall foul of a withering range of traps called heuristics and biases.

It is these ‘mental rules of thumb’, rather than considered intellect, which rule many aspects of our working environment, right from the workshop to the boardroom, we need to take action.

But what exactly is this field that throws up such controversial thinking and how do we learn from what it has to teach us? At first glance Human and Organisational Factors appears highly theoretical and all-encompassing but two statements may help define the topic. The first is ‘the understanding of interactions between humans and other elements of a system’, followed by ‘the influence this has on organisational behaviours’. If we then consider these human ‘elements’ in terms of perception; cognition and behaviour, I feel we have taken the first steps in what Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman refers to as “enriching the vocabulary”. We begin to break down the psychological stages and mechanisms at play, when employees make decisions and we can start to develop systems with the inbuilt tolerances.

Human Factors is not a new field of study. The Health and Safety executive first published HSG48 - ‘Reducing Error and Influencing Behaviour’ - in 1989 and there is a wealth of excellent material on their website. Industries which lag behind in this subject should take some lessons from other industries that recognise processes and provide training which allows for human error. A good example of this is the CRM or Crew Resource Management training used within the aviation industry and also considered for the field of surgery.

A event some years back was opened by Lord Cullen, who made some very astute observations on the over reliance on human intervention and the requirement for good system design to be error tolerant. There was an impressive panel of non-industry speakers from both sides of the Atlantic attending the event and at one point in the day a golden opportunity arose to discuss the human contribution to risk in the fields of both Process Safety and Personal Safety.

For years, in order to understand root causes, we have been urged to ask ‘why?’ (sometimes 5 times in a row). The very question ‘why’ when applied to humans suggests reason and conscious decision whereas ‘how’ addresses error mechanisms. But the ‘Availability Heuristic’ and ‘Confirmation Bias’ indicate that we make mental shortcuts on the probability of something happening, based on how easily we can recall similar examples and that we are programmed to argue away anything that doesn’t support our prejudice. Would it be difficult to find evidence of these concepts in almost any Risk Assessment being done today?

We all hear it being said ‘people are our most important asset’ and today we see IIP plaques and logos everywhere. But our investment in people should go beyond workplace satisfaction and career development, focusing instead on the vulnerability of individual employees as ‘elements’ in our systems. We should really understand how our employees make decisions and invest wisely around that.

Some organisations have a healthy, proactive approach to Human Factors and some even consider the Organisational aspects, unfortunately, and to the apparent frustration of the Competent and Approval authorities, many others seem to be ‘too busy being busy!’

As a topic for a short article, Human Factors is far from simple yet ironically many of the strategic solutions which can be applied are simplicity itself.

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