The Human Element: Integrating Human Factors into Workplace Safety

Don't overlook human factors in safety.

Human factors like stress & fatigue can greatly impact workplace safety. Learn how to effectively address the risks to protect your employees.

Author: Lisa Fade

June 17, 2024

As a safety professional, you spend your days ensuring EH&S best practices are applied to prevent injuries and maintain reliability. Workplace safety is complex, requiring careful attention to detail in multiple areas. While you likely have safety management systems to address the various risks at your worksite it’s essential to ask: Does your safety management system manage human factors as effectively as it addresses other occupational health and safety issues?

What Are Human Factors?

Human factors encompass the relationship between the individual performing the work, the assigned task, and the worksite or equipment being used. These factors influence how individuals interact with their work environment, tools, tasks, and colleagues, thereby affecting overall safety performance. The study of human factors spans multiple disciplines, from anatomy and biomechanics to cognitive and behavioral sciences. While human errors are inevitable, their impact on workplace safety can be significant.

Human Factors Engineering aims to align the workplace with the worker by considering ergonomics, efficiency, equipment layout, and accessibility in the design process. Clear procedures and comprehensive training help ensure tasks can be performed safely and consistently, minimizing the risk of errors. However, even with an optimal workplace design and thorough training programs and procedures in place, an employee’s physical condition and emotional well-being can still affect safety and performance. Factors such as fatigue, stress, and distractions significantly impact a worker’s ability to perform tasks safely and effectively. Therefore, addressing these individual human factors is essential to workplace safety.

Common Human Factors at Work

Fatigue can decrease an employee’s concentration and slow their reaction times, increasing the risk of errors and accidents. This can result from long or non-traditional work hours, lack of rest or sleep, physically demanding tasks, or high-stress environments. Shift work, especially late or overnight shifts, is a common cause of fatigue. Workers may underestimate the effects of fatigue or fail to recognize their level of tiredness, leading to unsafe work practices.

High levels of stress can impair mental performance, affecting problem-solving and decision-making abilities. Stress can stem from heavy workloads, demanding deadlines, job insecurity, conflicts, or even personal issues outside the workplace. It can cause a worker to lose focus, leading to mistakes and impacting both individual and organizational performance.

High levels of stress can impair performance.

Distractions while working can significantly affect an employee’s ability to concentrate on their tasks. These distractions can come from both internal and external sources. In the workplace, interactions with coworkers, excessive noise from equipment, and managing multiple concurrent tasks can split focus and contribute to mental fatigue. Personal issues such as health concerns, financial problems, or family conflicts, as well as non-work-related activities like engaging on social media, can all divide an employee’s attention. All of these distractions can lead to reduced attention to detail, compromising both safety and productivity.

Mitigating Human Factors and Risks to Employee Health

To effectively manage the human factors issues related to an individual’s physical and mental well-being, consider the following strategies:

Training and Awareness:
Ensure all employees receive adequate training on human factors and their impact on individual work performance. Conduct regular awareness sessions to educate workers about the effects of stress, fatigue, and other human factors on workplace safety. By fostering understanding and awareness, employees can better recognize and address these factors in their daily tasks.

Culture of Safety:
Encourage open communication and participation from all employees regarding safety concerns. By empowering employees to voice their concerns and suggestions, organizations can proactively identify and address potential hazards, creating a safer work environment for everyone.

Workload Management:
Manage workload and work hours strategically to mitigate the risks associated with human factors. Maintain adequate staffing levels and plan demanding tasks during times when employees are most alert. Implementing regular breaks, particularly during strenuous work, helps prevent fatigue and maintain employee focus and productivity throughout the shift.

Support and Wellness Programs:
Provide resources to help employees manage stress and maintain overall well-being. Offer access to counseling services, wellness programs, and stress management workshops. Promote work-life balance by encouraging employees to take breaks, utilize their vacation time, and engage in activities that promote relaxation and rejuvenation. By prioritizing employee health and wellness, organizations can create a positive work environment that fosters productivity and job satisfaction.

Address Human Factors to Improve Safety

Mental health plays a critical role in workplace safety. Fatigue, stress, and distractions, in particular, contribute significantly to human error, potentially leading to accidents and affecting overall performance. As safety professionals, it is our responsibility to be proactive in prioritizing the well-being and safety of all workers and fostering a culture of safety within our organizations. By addressing these issues, we can create safer and healthier workplaces for everyone.

Looking to Improve Your Workforce Safety Program?

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