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‘Human error’ not all human, says expert

By Mari-Len De Guzman
| www.cos-mag.com
Todd Conklin

NIAGARA FALLS, Ont. — The Canadian Society of Safety Engineering (CSSE) kicked off its annual professional development conference in this city with a keynote speaker who generated a few laughs and presented some unconventional viewpoints on health and safety management.

Todd Conklin, a senior advisor to the associate director of the U.S. Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, told safety professionals that the biggest enemy of safety is the “belief that we know the answer.”

“Our challenge is to understand that our workplaces are places where failure is going to happen,” said Conklin.

He urged safety professionals to view safety not as the absence of failure or incidents, but the presence of defences.

He said, too often when an incident occurs, employers often point to an error or violation that a worker committed that led to the incident. This traditional view would usually result to the worker taking most of the blame for what went wrong.

“Workers don’t cause failure — I don’t believe it,” Conklin said. “In the desperate need to the find cause (of the failure), we always tend to focus on the operator.”

When in fact, he added, workers get hurt when they find themselves in situations where it’s hard to be safe and easy to get hurt.

Conklin pointed out what is usually referred to as “human error” is actually 70 per cent system-induced error and only 30 per cent individual error.

“Error is not a choice. Because error is not a choice, it cannot be a violation,” Conklin said.

Safety managers and employers must manage both worker behaviour and work processes in parallel.

In his keynote address, Conklin shared five human performance principles that should guide employers and safety professionals with prevention.

1.    People by nature are fallible. “People are going to make mistakes. You have to have multiple layers of defence,” Conklin said.

2.    Error-likely situations are predictable. While employers and safety managers cannot predict and event or incident, the environment where are even happens is predictable, Conklin said.

3.    Individual behaviours are influenced by organization. “Behaviour is always a product of organizational system,” the CSSE keynote speaker said. It is important to manage both behaviour and organizational systems at the same time.

4.    Operational upsets can be avoided by learning. The most powerful tool humans have is their ability to learn. Accident prevention happens through learning, Conklin said. “It’s the story of our little events that collectively help us tell where the next incident will happen.”

5.    Management’s response to failure matters. Instead of asking a worker, “what have you done, now?” ask them, “how do we set this up so failure doesn’t happen again.” By asking the right question, employers can get a more operational-centric answer.

Conklin’s keynote presentation echoes CSSE’s officials’ call for safety professionals to push themselves to discover new and better ways to do their job.

CSSE president Peter Sturm urged the more than 800 safety professionals attending this year’s conference to “refresh and renew” themselves as safety professionals.

“Safety workplaces is the goal of every one of us,” Sturm said. “One accident is one too many.”

The CSSE Professional Development Conference is being held in this city from Sept. 9 to 12.

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