To Err(or) Is Human: 7 Strategies For Mitigating Against Human Error

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Ian Jennings


To Err(or) Is Human: 7 Strategies For Mitigating Against Human Error

Everyone makes mistakes. We’re only human, after all. Here’s how you can - and should - be preparing for the inevitable.

Businesses go to great lengths to create safe working environments. They’ve gotten good at it, too. At least when it comes to the quantifiable risks of common workplace hazards. But even the most robust OH&S policy isn’t perfect because people are inherently fallible and make mistakes.

It’s not a matter of if, but rather a question of when.

The reality is, human error remains a wildcard. Reducing workplace injuries and illnesses is no longer reliant on finding ways to address common risks. Nowadays, you need to consider the many ways in which those exact policies may be bent or even broken by the people they’re designed to protect.

“To err is human”, as the saying goes.

If the following figures are anything to go by, humans will err when given a chance.

1. Errors and unintentional mistakes

Mistakes are inherently honest. Most of them, at least. We’ll wrap back around to those that walk the line between honest and malicious a little later, but for now, it’s safe to assume most errors are entirely unintentional.

Unintentional or otherwise, organisations need to ensure they proactively identify and address errors before they cause significant issues. The humble typo may seem like an easy thing to fix, for example, but within a high-stakes work environment it can bring industry behemoths like Amazon to a halt.

More than that, they put lives at risk. Some reports suggest that as many as 80 - 90% of workplace accidents within certain industries can be attributed to human error. So what can be done to prevent something that most people won’t realise they’re doing?

In these cases, knowledge is power. Mistakes may seem harmless on first inspection; the throwaway result of a momentary lapse in concentration, perhaps. But there’s often more to these issues than meets the eye.

Attention failures, cognitive load failures, and physical exhaustion are all leading contributors to human error within the workplace. They’re also all fancy ways of saying many within said environments are overworked, tired, and stressed.

According to recent studies, a staggering 83% of workers reported suffering from workplace stress, with 60 to 80% of accidents on the job being caused by stress-related distractions or sleepiness.

Addressing errors and unintentional mistakes in the workplace:

  • Ensure employees don’t feel obligated to take work home with them.
  • Reduce stress by providing ample breaks, rest, and opportunities to recuperate.
  • Provide support and counselling services so that workers feel seen, heard, and supported.

2. Poor judgment and bad decision making

In April 2005, Japan suffered one of its worst rail accidents on record. The train, reportedly spurred on by an operator fearing the repercussions of earlier delays, reached unsafe speeds before finally derailing. One hundred six passengers lost their lives that day, as did the driver. A further 562 were injured.

In the following weeks, reports would reveal the reasoning behind the operator’s erratic behaviour.

The West Japan Railway Company had a record of enforcing strict reporting policies, leaving staff facing severe financial penalties and humiliating retraining procedures. These policies were designed to keep trains running on time, and encourage error reporting.

The real-world result? Staff, fearful and stressed, stopped reporting incidents altogether.

Not every workplace enforces the same strict punishments as The West Japan Railway Company, but this cautionary tale indicates two things. One, that punishment isn’t always a great deterrent. Two? That procedures that look good on paper don’t always translate to the real world.

In truth, the decision-making process is a web of factors, with the causes - such as the driver’s apparent poor judgement and decision making - often being a symptom of a greater issue. Blaming human error and moving on is a simple yet ineffective way of dealing with what is a surprisingly complex issue.

In the case of The West Japan Railway Company, its policies created a culture where staff operated in fear and incidents went unreported. It’s a clear sign that while human error can’t be eliminated, it can be exacerbated if you’re not careful.

Encouraging better decision making in the workplace:

  • Discuss issues with the individual in private, and not in front of fellow staff.
  • Encourage, reward, and support your desired outcomes within the workplace.
  • Create a culture of honesty where workers and their concerns are listened to and heard.

3. Disregard for procedures

Most mistakes may be honest, but others can arise from a blatant, brazen, or at times malicious disregard for company policy. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the area of cybersecurity.

Let’s take a step back for a moment. Fifteen, ten, or even five years ago, the suggestion that cybersecurity be considered a factor - let alone a significant component - in OH&S would have seemed absurd. As if science fiction. Fast forward to 2019 however, and it’s clear that a comprehensive policy isn’t complete if it doesn’t cover cybersecurity.

In this connected era, a lack of training and awareness is putting information, data, and documents at risk. But the most significant risk factor of all comes from employees. It may sound surprising, staff often unknowingly put themselves and your business’s information at risk without even realising it.

Recent reports suggest that up to 75% of incidents where sensitive data is lost is caused by human error. Further studies by Shred-It found that 25% of respondents admitted to leaving their computers unlocked and unattended. It isn’t always on accident, either. Research conducted by Dtex Systems showed that 95% of the enterprises surveyed had employees who were actively circumventing corporate security protocols. But why?

In many cases, overly restrictive cybersecurity policies, as well as difficult-to-use systems and software, can be enough to drive even the most dedicated worker to use their own devices or take work home. Both big no-no’s if you’re wanting to ensure your data doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.

Getting up-to-speed in the digital era:

  • Make cybersecurity a priority and bring staff up to speed with regular training.
  • Implement common-sense policies that deal with common issues such as passwords and the use of personal electronic devices within the workplace.
  • Circumvent insecure channels and flawed software packages by switching to a Cloud-based business platform for storing and sharing files.

Discounting human error can prove costly

Issues that fall within the strict boundaries of modern OH&S policies are easier to identify and deal with these days, but it’s those that fall outside of the system - such as those identified today - that often pose the biggest risk. While it can never be eliminated entirely, being able to identify the potential for these breakdowns as well as how best to alleviate the causes is one of the most effective ways to minimise the potential for human error within the workplace.

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