Human factors hold the key to increased safety

Simon Mahon

UNDERSTANDING interactions surrounding site banter could help measure human performance and help contribute to a reduction in construction accidents, an expert in human factors and safety management has revealed

The tactic of using jovial conversations amongst colleagues to boost workplace safety derives from the concept of human factors, which are cognitive, social, and personal skills that can enhance technical abilities.

KURA Human Factors is currently driving the training of the skillsets, also known as non-technical skills, into the agriculture sector – having already successfully transitioned it from aviation to construction, working with firms such as Kier and Morgan Sindall in the process.

“The great thing is that it’s called human factors for a reason – it’s not industry-specific factors, it’s human factors,” Simon Mahon of Kura explained. “Human factors should be natural if everyone had that same level of training – they’re present in all of us; they just require training or teaching to be brought out.”

With experience working in the emergency services, through to tactical helicopter operations in the military and the strategic air operations of large aircrafts globally, Simon is now a director at KURA and is part of the firm’s ongoing collaboration with the University of Aberdeen to develop the human factor training course for agriculture, based on construction’s blueprint.

Communication, situational awareness, and critical thinking are the three human factors identified by Simon as being key to safety on construction sites. One take away from the transition of KURA’s course from aviation to construction was the use of these abilities in jovial conversations with colleagues.

Citing a 2012 study on the Royal Australian Air Force, Simon explained how it was noted that workers not only built relationships through workplace banter, but also gauged how each other were feeling through the responses to the jovial quips.

For example, cracking a joke about a football side losing would ordinarily see a harmless back and forth debate ensue, but an unusually angry response could be a tell-tale sign that the colleague is fatigued or stressed – two mental states that Simon said must be identified immediately in the three industries.

“Fatigue has a hugely damaging impact on human performance,” he explained. “As you become more fatigued, your ability or appetite to want to take more risk because you’re tired increases. So, your behaviour, your actions – they become shorter, less thought through, and your appetite for risk increases. But also, your awareness of how risky your behaviour is reduces. It is important it is identified.”

The aviation industry has regulations in place to ensure that its workforce isn’t put at risk of suffering from fatigue. “Why we have this really mature fatigue management in aviation is because we’ve learnt we need to protect people from themselves, from that desire to make as much money as they can in a short amount of time,” Simon said. “People will, especially if they’ve got mortgages to pay and children to feed, work longer and make as much money as possible.”

Simon is keen to see similar regulation brought into construction and agriculture. A key transition from the course between the two industries, is what is referred to as people versus plant interface. This is the idea of a human effectively going up against a plant machine, in a bid to carry out tasks – for example, crossing the working area of a live excavator, or operating a piece of machinery one is not trained in.

“Managing an aspect like fatigue properly will absolutely allow a person to think more clearly,” he said. “It’ll also allow them to think more critically about the situation they’re in and that’ll allow them to stop, realise they have no idea what that piece of machinery is doing, what it’s capable of, what its reach is, and if it’s coming into my workspace.”

A study of 2,500 Icelandic workers found that working four-day weeks ‘dramatically’ increased their wellbeing, limited burn-out and also boosted productivity.

“Human attention and capacity for attention and vigilance is finite – it’s a finite resource, and the longer you try and spread that out, you don’t get more work you just get less quality work,” Simon explained.

“I think four-day weeks would be great because it would change the emphasis from, what I have to say, looks like presentisms in some parts of construction and it will focus it on quality and output,” he added. “You’re probably going to get the same amount done in those four days, whilst giving people a balanced life and healthier output – they’re going to be more engaged in work and focused on what they’re doing for a shorter period of time.”

Moving forward, Simon said he hopes that human factors become a more prominent part of life. He believes that children should be taught in school to understand how their own mind works as a human, as having that understanding will give them a good base to manage their lifestyle.

In terms of industry, he is keen for human factors do be adopted consistently by firms – and not through a ‘transaction’ but an ‘ongoing relationship’. “We want to educate the entire industry, not just project by project,” Simon added. “The sooner we start educating as many people as we can in basic human factors, the more we’ll start making a dent in those horrific injury and death statistics we see from the HSE specifically to do with construction.”