What Role Do Human Factors Play in Workplace Safety?

What Role Do Human Factors Play in Workplace Safety?

By Sphera’s Editorial Team | February 4, 2020

I have been studying Oil & Gas operations and management practices for about 15 years. Over the past few years, I’ve had an opportunity to focus on Process Safety and Operational Risk Management, including safety culture, management best practices and the potential impact arising from major accident hazard risk exposure. Speaking with and learning from safety experts, one of the most important elements in safety performance is the crucial role of people.

This is a time of revolution for the safety industry. Senior leadership teams are investing in Operational Risk Management. Regulatory bodies are investigating and sharing how the industry can get better and learn from hazardous events. Industry associations are equipping leaders with best practice. Academia has begun to train, develop and certify a new regime of process safety experts. Where traditionally the industry focused on equipment failure, corrosion, etc., leading industry organizations are beginning to collect information about other causes and factors—information that’s beginning to offer a truer picture of process safety-related issues.

What’s being reported back is a substantial number of industrial incidents are related to “human factors,” which are the reasons people fail to execute a procedure properly or miss an operating step. The Society of Petroleum Engineers reported a few years ago that 80% of offshore facility accidents are caused by human factors, and 64% of these accidents happen during operations.

Industry experts agree human factors are not typically the result of attitude. According to Nancy Leveson, a professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: “The goal then is to understand why people did not or could not act differently. People acted the way they did for very good reasons; we need to understand why the behavior of the people involved made sense to them at the time.”

Human factors stem from a lack of awareness about what’s happening in difficult and dynamic operating environments. Safety systems and risk models often do not explain when and where an organization is most at risk, especially as facilities change. Nor do they translate risk in a way that everyone can understand.

Leveson also has said: “When operators receive input about the state of the system being controlled, they will first try to fit that information into their current mental model and will find reasons to exclude information that does not fit. Because operators are continually testing their mental models against reality, the longer a model has been held, and the more different sources of information that led to that incorrect model, the more resistant the models will be to change due to conflicting information, particularly ambiguous information.”

Downstream Oil & Gas industry expert Kelly Keim highlighted the Chemical Safety Board report about an explosion at a Torrance, California, refinery. It explained how, as operations became focused on the tasks required to complete the shutdown, they became unaware of the changing risk profile around them. They didn’t know the importance of the key process safety barriers they were altering.

Even some companies may not understand all the hazards they have and the conditions of their safeguards to keep them from turning into an incident—particularly those associated with infrequent modes of operations, like startups and shutdowns.

The impact is felt beyond safety performance. ARC Advisory Group research estimates the impact of unplanned downtime on process industry revenue and profitability is $1 trillion per year.

A response from industry is to develop a function, outside of Environmental Health & Safety, called “Human Factors Engineers,” who are responsible for understanding the interactions among humans and elements of a system and incorporating these within the facility design.

But does this pose another risk? Even the most well-thought-out facility design begins to fail just as soon as operations commence. The “failure” is not because the design was inadequate, but because of the dynamic operating conditions, the pull on resources, and shifting goals and priorities. Sure, workload, fatigue and other stresses will play a role—not to mention, an overload of complex data coming from various management systems, inspection databases, regulators, etc. This data offers only insufficient information without context. The result is disruption to the effectiveness of the design. So, is more engineering the right solution?

Thanks to Integrated Risk Management 4.0 (IRM 4.0) technology, operators can get the right contextual information at the right time and the right place.

Real-time situational awareness is necessary for making sound decisions, especially when executing the organization’s strategic goals, including production, safety and cost management in operating conditions that are constantly changing. It’s just as important for frontline operations and maintenance to understand the risks that could arise as a result of their work plan as it is for senior leadership to understand the risk impact of business priorities and resourcing. Everyone plays a key role in managing risk.

Companies can help alter the data flows to make them more manageable for everyone.

“Ultimately management is responsible for having systems in place to make operators aware of changing risk patterns,” Kelly Keim said.

Executives must recognize this is part of managing safety as well as Operational Excellence. Companies need to ensure the necessary information is available to support real-time decision-making and better overall management of the plant or asset. The goal is to help root business strategy—including, but not limited to, safety performance—into core operating practices.

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