Finding Ways to Reduce Human Errors that Cause Workplace Accidents

An Indiana University of Pennsylvania professor is hoping that a study he is embarking on will yield new methods for reducing workplace injuries by identifying tools to motivate and engage workers in the safety process. The study will focus on human error and the role it plays in accidents, and accident prevention.
Safety sciences professor Jan Wachter believes that human error in the workplace, while not completely preventable, can be managed by better tools to motivate and engage workers in the safety process.
If his study yields new ways to manage safety in the workplace successfully, he hopes the results can reduce lost workdays due to accidents by up to 20%. This, of course, would be a boon for employers as one of the costliest results of a workplace injury or illness is the time away from work, requiring other employees to pick up the slack and the loss in productivity, not to mention the personal costs to the person who was injured.
“While human error has been associated with the majority of incidents in the workplace, it can be managed through a variety of mechanisms. But motivation and worker engagement may be the keys to human-error reduction,” he said.
Wachter will test this theory in a research project that recently received $90,000 in funding from the Alcoa Foundation.
The professor says that the key difference in his study, as opposed to other research on safety in the workplace, is that he will investigate how well — or how poorly — workers are engaged, or buying into, a shared accountability for identifying at-risk situations and responding to them.
For example, a worker may forget to wear safety glasses and get glass or metal shards in an eye. Wachter suggests that this type of accident could be prevented through methods of worker engagement. That is, before each work shift, employees may get together and remind each other of the specific personal protective equipment needed for that day’s task. It would be akin to an airline pilot going through the preflight checklist to make sure that all systems in the aircraft are functioning properly before take-off.
The theory of getting employees to buy into a company’s safety policies has shown merit in the past. Safety specialists say that engaged employees demonstrate a greater sense of personal ownership and compliance with safe work methods, adjust more quickly to needed changes in safety practices, and act proactively to ensure that work is being done in the safest way possible.
Studies have already shown that one of the key elements of getting employees to buy into a culture of safety is that the management does so first. But it is rank-and-file employees that really make it happen. Earlier studies have found that employees need the following if they are to truly buy into efforts at keeping the workplace safe:
Trust – Workers must believe in management’s emphasis on safety, and that the safety program is primarily for their own good.
Knowledge – Employees must be given all appropriate information about the program. Generally, the more they know, the more they will be supportive and involved.
Commitment – Like owners and managers, employees must be committed to the concept of safety if they are to practice it.
Communication – Lines of communication must be open between workers and workers, and workers and management. Strategies for opening and maintaining lines of communication must be employed.
Attitude – Employees themselves may well be the best examples for each other in maintaining standards of a safety program. Attitude is catching, and often the attitude of commitment must be caught from management and ownership.
Involvement – The bottom line of a safety program is in practicing the safe behavior that is called for. Sometimes this may mean maintaining what already has been established; sometimes it involves major changes. In any case, the employee must be willing to make the effort to actually “live out” safety practices.
Recognition – Not only management, but front-line workers must be involved in recognizing safe behavior. Peer support is crucial for maintaining program enthusiasm and involvement.

It is hoped that the new study will expand on these factors. Once the results are made public, we will publish an update in this newsletter.