To err is human, but what is a human factor?

08 November 2016
If News 6/2016 Property. In a recent study, some major losses in chemical, food and construction industries was investigated and the complex nature of accidents was, again, emphasized.​​​

The study concentrated on human factors that on their own are somewhat problematic, as to what is actually meant by human factors. In the Master’s thesis, “Human factor as a source of property losses”, the human factor was seen to be a factor that affects human performance. It was divided into four levels: individual, group, organizational and external factors, and their contribution to property losses was investigated.

The selected industrial sectors

One part of the research was the investigation of 16 major losses in chemical, food and construction industries. Claims adjusters from If were interviewed using a questionnaire based on HFACS (Human Factors Analysis and Classification System). Organizational factors were strongly linked to the investigated major losses. The identified themes were maintenance failures in the chemical industry, risk management failures related to hot work in the food industry and poor quality of work in the construction industry.

Common themes

In the five chemical industry claims a common theme was maintenance failures. This type of failure was identified in three out of five major losses. Failures were either due to a lack of condition monitoring, inadequate preventive maintenance or insufficient maintenance. A contributing reason behind inadequate maintenance was the difficulty of risk identification. Understanding the risks associated with the complex equipment required versatile expertise and experience that was often only gained by using the equipment.

It would appear that risks related to hot work are neither properly controlled nor understood in the food industry, as the theme there was inadequate risk management of hot work. Companies fail to comply with hot work procedures or fail to understand their significance, when implemented.

Fixation on cost at the expense of quality, poor quality control, poor communication between project parties and lack of time have been identified as contributing factors for construction industry claims. What was clearly identified from the claims, were deficiencies in cooperation and communication between the project parties. Because of these deficiencies, the quality of work was unsatisfactory.

Natural Phenomena

Five claims out of 16 were caused by natural phenomena, which the interviewees considered to have unidentifiable associated risks that could not be identified by the organisations beforehand. This also resulted in only a few identified contributing factors. However, this raised the question of - what is the acceptable level of protection regarding natural phenomena? Organisations are responsible for taking natural phenomena into consideration; but, the difficulty lies in identifying the extent of the possible risk.

The result: Human factor does not only lie in the individual itself

The most important result of this research was that it indicated how complex in nature accidents are. Accidents had several contributing factors that emerged on all the levels of human factors and no conclusion could be reached as to, which factor was of the greatest significance.

Human error is only a consequence of several other deficiencies in the system. It is important to shift thinking along these lines, as employees alone, are never responsible for accidents. Systems are becoming increasingly complex and this phenomenon should be kept in mind when accidents are investigated.

Katja Salmi​ katja.salmi@alumni.aalto.fi​