The role of human factors in accident prevention

Paul Boughton

Human factors have always been central to accident prevention in the process industries. Now a major European safety body has published a detailed report which identifies the barriers that exist to understanding them. Sean Ottewell reports.

In its new report 'Repositioning Human Factors' the UK's Health and Safety Executive (HSE) explores how it might reposition human factors/ergonomics (HF/E) so that it is more central to the thinking key decision makers (KDMs) within high hazard process industries.

The findings of the 132-page report suggest that although knowledge and understanding of HF/E is penetrating through there is recognition by KDMs that they need to do more. Options to help improve knowledge and techniques in the prevention of error and unsafe behaviour include:

- Improve knowledge and understanding of HF/E, primarily through training;

- Develop and promote tools and guidance to help enhance this knowledge and assist in the practical application of this knowledge to the prevention of major accidents; and

- Facilitate peer review to critique safety management system and processes and to demonstrate how particular HF/E techniques can be applied.

"Improving knowledge, developing tools and guidance and facilitating peer review could be delivered in co-operation with industry associations and professional institutes. The eventual aim should be to better integrate HF/E into day-to-day management," says the HSE.

To achieve its aim of helping high-hazard industries better manage and prevent the risk of major accident accidents, the report considers the extent to which influential people within such industries take account of HF/E when making decisions about process safety.

This report also provides the background to the research, the historical context and rationale for why the promulgation of HF/E principles, knowledge and techniques remains a priority area for the organisation. The findings are presented within four sections: the key decision makers (KDMs); how decisions are made and the role of HF/E within this process; current understanding and attitude to HF/E; and the barriers to HF/E.

As an example of the report's findings, KDMs are identified as senior, site and front line managers as well as H&S personnel. Other named decision makers are operation personnel and board and committee members. Less frequently cited groups, who are likely to support and influence the decision making process rather than actually make the decisions, include trade unions, financial departments (in terms of agreeing resources and allocating funds), human resources and contractors.

Decision making on process safety that does take account of HF/E is frequently found to be collaborative and can be complex and varied. Those involved in the decision making process change depending on the type of decision being made - certain HF/E topics are tackled by specialist roles with close links to that area of work.

In terms of the current application of HF/E to tackle process safety issues, the report finds that a range of familiar and accepted HF/E techniques are frequently cited as a way to tackle issues impacting on process safety: "In particular KDMs cited that they frequently consulted workers and also used a number of different analytic techniques to improve understanding of a problem area. It was less clear whether worker consultation and analysis were applied in a systematic and consistent way."

The findings also indicate that the value of HF/E is understood and that KDMs recognise that there is a need to do more and that HF/E should be better integrated into wider professional development and safety management decision making. The same people, however, were less clear about how to apply HF/E to their work place. Nevertheless, KDMs cited a number of possible ways that his might be achieved:

- More training on HF/E (relevant/practical/certificated);

- More practical support in tackling HF/E issues (tools/guidance);

- Developing partnerships with industry associations and professional institutions to help deliver training, practical guidance and peer review;

- Peer review is a very valuable method for learning and improving;

- HSE should seek to take the lead on HF/E and develop an agenda and strategy to communicate on it more effectively.

The report finds few discernible job or sector differences in terms of these broad requirements, although the findings indicate that formal peer review is used more widely within the nuclear sector.

The section which explores how KDMs learn and acquire knowledge that can impact on safe operations finds that reports into high-profile accidents such as Buncefield and Texas City can benefit them in three different ways. The first involves reading the reports and seeing how lessons can be applied. The second involves conducting a more thorough review of the accident, often by contacting those directly involved in it. The third involves acting out the accident to better understand the scenarios that led to it.

- The full report can be found at