Safety and Human Error

by George Robotham on October 2, 2013

in George Robotham

Safety and Human Error

George’s Safety Reflections – classic post by the late George Robotham

When you pick up the newspaper and listen to the television or radio you will find terms like driver error, human error and pilot error used frequently as if this was the definitive reason why “accidents”, occur. Authorities such as the police may have a focus on human error so they can find out who to blame and penalise after car crashes.

A major objection to the human error concept is that there is usually a focus on the “errors” of the individual who was damaged and people do not look at the contribution of others who developed and managed the overall system being worked in. The term human error often misdirects effort in safety. .

The human error concept is an accepted part of our society but the reality is that the terminology is emotive, ill-defined, means different things to different people and in a lot of cases automatically infers blame. Even if the dependence on the human error concept was true, it is unhelpful. The trouble with the human error concept is that some organisations will concentrate on people fixes and forget about the equipment and environment fixes. Often fixing the person is the least effective way of getting meaningful change. For critical issues it is often more reliable to depend on things instead of people.

The above recognises there is a part to play in training workers and have supervisors enforce that the learnt behaviour occurs. You need to recognise that a “Least time, least effort” approach is a natural tendency with human beings and this is sometimes responsible for the behaviour you see.

For additional information refer to the Human Error Concept paper on

George Robotham

George Robotham

George was a Legend in the Safety World who passed away in Sept 2013 but left us with a great legacy
George Robotham
I have worked in OHS for most of my working life, many years in the mining industry including over 10 years in a corporate OHS role with BHP. Since leaving the mining industry I have worked in a variety of safety roles with a variety of employers, large & small, in a variety of industries. I was associated with my first workplace fatality at age 21, the girl involved was young, intelligent, vivacious and friendly. Such a waste! I was the first on the scene and tried to comfort her and tend to her injuries. She said to me “George, please do not let me die” We put her on the aerial ambulance to Rockhampton base hospital where she died the next day. I do not mind telling you that knocked me around for awhile. Since then I have helped my employers cope with the aftermath of 12 fatalities and 2 other life-altering events. The section "Why do Occupational Health & Safety" provides further detail but in summary, poor safety is simply very expensive and also has a massive humanitarian cost. My qualifications include a certificate I.V. in Workplace Training and Assessment, a Diploma in Frontline Management, a Diploma in Training & Assessment Systems, a Bachelor of Education (Adult & Workplace Education) , a Grad. Cert. in Management of Organisational Change and a Graduate Diploma in Occupational Hazard Management. I am currently studying towards a Masters in Business Leadership. Up until recently I had been a Chartered Fellow of the Safety Institute of Australia for 10 years and a member for about 30 years. My interest is in non-traditional methods of driving organisational change in OHS and I have what I believe is a healthy dis-respect for many common approaches to OHS Management and OHS Training. I hold what I believe is a well-founded perception that many of the things safety people and management do in safety are “displacement activities” (Displacement activities are things we do, things we put a lot of energy into, but which when we examine them closely there is no valid reason for doing them). My managerial and leadership roles in OHS have exposed me to a range of management techniques that are relevant to Business Improvement. In particular I am a strong supporter of continuous improvement and quality management approaches to business. I believe leadership is the often forgotten key to excellence in most aspects of life. I hold the Australian Defence Medal and am a J.P.(Qualified). I have many fond memories of my time playing Rugby Union when I was a young bloke.
  • My main issue with the human error genre is the lack of definition. I am happy to discuss cognitive biases and heuristics, but human error doesn’t really mean anything. It’s like the discourse on culture, a lot of noise and spin without definition just drives the sector in a spiral of confusion.

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