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Behavioural Safety and Major Accident Hazards: Magic Bullet or Shot in the Dark?

Patrick Thomas, Leo Learning’s Key Account Director for the Energy Sector offers a summary of Martin Anderson’s article on Behavioural Safety and Major Accident Hazards: Magic Bullet or Shot in the Dark?

Why is it that companies with good statistics on personal safety still have major accidents? Clearly, interventions aimed at the individual are not a sufficient barrier to preventing latent weaknesses that cause major accidents. Yet, many organisations continue to deliver behaviour modification safety training programmes to front line personnel in the hope that training front line personnel will prevent major accidents.

Martin Anderson at the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) asserts that the popularity of behaviour modification safety training programmes may actually be taking away the focus and funding of many organisations that should be looking holistically at process safety across the whole system, including the technical processes, the physical systems as well as the human factors.

Behaviour modification programmes are shown to do a lot of good; they raise the awareness of health and safety, they keep the employee engaged in health and safety and they ensure management and leadership are engaged in safety culture. With 70-80% of incidents caused by ‘human error’, Anderson suggests that organisations tend to look at ‘human’ error as meaning those people on the front line and therefore focus their training interventions there. However, management rarely looks at itself as the source of incident errors. Oddly, ‘human factors’ almost never includes management.

“There exists an anomalous situation”. On one hand, industry increasingly recognises that incidents have underlying causes distant from the person who is directly involved. However, on the other hand, resources to prevent such incidents are often targeted at front line staff.

Professor Trevor Kletz writes, “Managers and designers, it seems, are either not human or do not make errors” (2001)

  • The fact that a pipe nozzle fits on both the intake and the outtake ends suggests that there is a fundamental design flaw.
  • The fact that employees are encouraged to lower operational costs by picking up additional responsibilities suggests that human error was inevitable.
  • The fact that employees do not follow the start up procedures because the official procedures have not been updated to reflect the system’s latest design upgrade suggests a breakdown in communication between engineering and operations.

All of the above come from actual catastrophic incidents where the ‘human factor’ was blamed.

Anderson goes on to say, “It is generally accepted that organisational and management factors are implicated in incidents across all industries, from the process industry, through transportation, to finance”.

So for vendors of learning and communications in the Energy sector like ourselves, it is not enough to take a brief on a given learning intervention without first asking about the lay of the land. What other training interventions are underway? How is safety training positioned within the organisation? As Martin Anderson’s paper suggests, we need to be looking at the management and leadership programmes to determine whether our clients are enabling management process safety training programmes as well.

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