The Human Factor in Safety Related Behaviour

Oct 23, 2019


Authored by: Aleks Pupovac, Consultant, PBC


In 2017, an aircraft in Normanton, north of Queensland, Australia was forced to land after both engines failed. Although no significant injuries were recorded, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau found that the incident could have been avoided if the refueller had communicated his error to the pilot before the flight. It was reported that the refueller only added 200 litres of fuel, half filling the tank but accidently recording it as full. The refueller later recognised his mistake and intended to inform the pilot, however he became distracted by a phone call and forgot to advise the pilot of the error. The aircraft was not needed for an 11-day period, allowing ample opportunity for the refueller to inform the pilot, however this did not occur.

In 2018, BHP were forced to deliberately derail an ore train resulting in more than a kilometre of damaged track that took over a week to clean up. This incident was estimated to cost BHP approximately $300 million in damages. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau found that the cause of the incident involved the rail maintenance team applying hand brakes to the wrong train, and a contractor failing to set an automatic brake handle to the emergency position.

Both these unfortunate incidents highlight how the ‘human factor’ can influence safety related behaviour and how it is often the hardest variable to mitigate in relation to an organisation’s safety climate.

What is the ‘Human Factor’?

There is a relationship between day-to-day personality and an individual’s likelihood to engage in behaviours that may break governing rules, policies or procedures. Certain personality characteristics have been found to influence safety related behaviour, including an individual’s conscientiousness, emotional stability, agreeableness and extraversion. In isolation, and without context, these characteristics can aid efficiency and work performance. However, in extreme preferences they may indicate a higher likelihood of problematic behaviours being observed. The following behavioural tendencies can be described as illustrations of these characteristics at their extremes.

‘The Rule Breaker’
This individual is likely to set their own rules, ask for forgiveness rather than seek permission and work to their own agenda. Often associated with low conscientiousness, these individuals may be described as inattentive to details, unreliable or have difficulty in following rules.

‘The Stress Head’
Likely to voice their complaints, this individual may be running off nervous energy and have a low tolerance for stress. Often associated with low emotional stability, there may be an inability to handle stress well, or struggle with adapting to new work conditions.

‘The Independent Worker’
This individual may prefer to work on their own, avoid building relationships with their colleagues and tend to remain focused on the task at hand. Often associated with low agreeableness, this individual may have a difficult time working with, and struggle to collaborate with others, even when the job demands it.

‘The Entertainer’
Likely to be very outgoing, talkative and distractible, The Entertainer is often associated with high extraversion. This individual may tend to quickly get bored with the task at hand and find themselves distracting others. With the tendency to like being the centre of attention, this individual is likely to draw attention to themselves and away from the task at hand.

Managing the ‘Human Factor’

While the above descriptions are likely behaviours of individuals with extreme tendencies on the above competencies, they illustrate how an organisation’s safety climate can be affected by the underlying personality characteristics of the employees. Managing these tendencies begins with a level of insight that can be measured during recruitment, or can be developed within existing employees. Screening for these underlying problematic behaviours will provide information on whether a candidate is suited to the role, or if the existing employee requires professional development.

The Hogan Safety Report highlights an individual’s underlying dimensions of personality, including conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and emotional stability. Reports are available for both Selection and Development applications. Understanding underlying personality factors influencing safety behaviour and identifying problematic tendencies of your employees can help to address your organisation’s safety culture.

For more information about our safety related services, please contact us.

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