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How human factors can impact on Health & Safety

How Human factors can impact on Health & Safety are organisational, job and people related factors that influence behaviour at work. We will now look at the human factors that could affect health and safety at work.

It has been demonstrated over and over again that human factors play a part in accidents at work. After an incident has occurred it is, with hindsight, easy to identify many factors that contributed to the situation. Investigation becomes more difficult when we want to understand why people acted in a certain way or made certain decisions. Too often the individual who was most directly involved is blamed. By applying a human factor approach we reveal many more underlying factors which influenced people’s behaviours. These can include poor design, poor maintenance, attitudes to how human factors can impact health and safety in the organisation, lack of clear visible leadership, inadequate training or supervision, poor work planning and organisation or individual attitude and skill.

Safety Management Supports to Glanbia
Safety Management Supports to Glanbia

Human factors can impact on Health & Safety can be grouped in the following three aspects which interlink with and overlap each other:

  • Organisation
    • the company, its management, its safety culture and its management systems
  • Task
    • job,
    • workplace and equipment design,
    • environment
  • Individual
    • a person’s individual characteristics and attitudes

Organisational Factors

Human factors can impact on Health and Safety in the workplace is affected by the collective characteristics of the business, organisation and teams in which they work. 

Employees respond to the visible and invisible messages they receive from others within their organisation, though not always in the way intended. Safety culture influences human behaviour which in turn influences the organisation’s culture. To manage health and safety effectively it is important to consider how all the organisational factors listed below influence and affect human factors impact on Health & Safety behaviour.  

  • managing organisational change
  • safety culture
  • behavioural safety
  • leadership and supervision
  • communications on safety
  • resource, staffing levels and organisation workload
  • human reliability – human error and systems failures
  • human factors in incident investigation
  • human factors integration
  • emergency response.

Task Factors

The way jobs are designed to interface with equipment and the workplace environment has a direct effect on the health and safety of workers. The timing of shifts, the length and frequency of breaks, the task workload, the physical and mental demands due to the design of the task, equipment and environment are all important factors to consider which influence human performance and can affect both the individual and the integrity of the whole work system. Consideration should be given to the following human factors impact on Health & Safety in designing jobs:

  • manual handling, repetitive actions and ergonomics
  • work-related stress (e.g. high workload)
  • fatigue from working patterns – shift work and overtime
  • alarm handling
  • interfaces with plant and equipment
  • design and effectiveness of procedures
  • routine and non-routine work.

Individual Characteristics

People vary in many ways, physically, mentally and in their personality, mood, knowledge and experience. The individual’s characteristics including their competence, skills, personality, attitude and risk perception, influence behaviour in complex ways. Some characteristics such as personality are more constant; others such as skills and attitudes may be changed or enhanced. Finally, people have different knowledge and experience on which to draw.

The design of the job, the equipment, information and work environment should all take account of the variety of individual capabilities and limitations. People should have the appropriate knowledge, skills and abilities to be able to carry out their work effectively and safely. They also need to have the appropriate attitudes and awareness of the risks in order to work in a safe manner. It is therefore necessary to ensure everyone has the appropriate training and personal development if they are to work efficiently and safely. 

It is also important to ensure that the workplace is designed ergonomically to support rather than hinder people’s task performance. When people are  recruited, or change their jobs, it is sensible to check if any adaptations to the workplace would reduce the risk of human error, injury or ill-health as well as increasing their efficiency or productivity. 

Consideration should be given to the following factors, where legislation allows:

  • training and competence
  • motivation and attitudes
  • adaptation of the job to the individual (see job, environmental and equipment factors above)
  • private personal, medical or family matters that can adversely influence work performance
  • stress and psychosocial risks in the workplace

Addressing How Human Factors can impact healht and safety: The Business Benefits

If you think managing safety is expensive, then you need to understand the actual costs of an accident which can very quickly run into tens of thousands. Managing human failures is essential to prevent major accidents, occupational accidents and ill health, all of which can cost businesses money, reputation and potentially their continued existence.

Successful businesses achieve high productivity and quality while ensuring health and safety. Good technology combined with the best work systems can help to achieve these goals. The best work systems are based on having a skilled workforce, with well-designed jobs that are appropriate to individuals’ abilities.

Individuals have a wide range of abilities and limitations. A Human Factors (or Ergonomics) approach focuses on how to make the best use of these capabilities: by designing jobs and equipment which are fit for people. This not only improves their health and safety but often ensures a better managed, more effective organisation.

Paddy McHugh, CEO of Compliplus acknowledges contributions from the HSA (www.hsa.ie), HSE (www.hse.gov.uk) and EIGA (www.eiga.com) in compiling this article.


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