Human error debunked, while curiosity and collaboration win
The EHS Congress has catapulted itself into the centre of the health and safety (H&S) community by providing an unparalleled range of high-quality presentations, bringing together hundreds of important thought leaders and H&S professionals from across Europe and beyond
This year’s Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) Congress was to be held in Berlin during April. In the light of the pandemic, however, the organisers decided to host the event as an online conference via Zoom, with great success.
The congress was an opportunity for collaboration, providing opportunities to brainstorm new ideas and concepts, and highlighting the industry’s resilience.
“As risk prevention is a core element of EHS, we just cannot take the risk of gathering 250 people in a single conference room for two whole days, not now and not in the near future in such a volatile situation,” said Aron Tozser, project manager at EHS Congress.
“We started with the topic that anybody on the planet, anywhere, is talking about – Covid-19 – and how it is affecting us,” noted Professor Andrew Sharman, EHS Congress chairman, CEO at RMS Switzerland and president at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH). “We heard in our panel discussions about disruption and how the future is about disruption.”
Sharman referred to the free webinar sessions that he co-hosted with the World Health Organization’s leadership team. “During one of these webinars the question arose whether we are going to see more of these pandemics, and the answer is quite simple – we don’t know. Possibly this is the way the world will be from now on – we are going to get disruptions like this more often.”
This view tied in perfectly with another phrase that was mentioned several times by different speakers: VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.
“We’re living in a VUCA world: it is volatile, it is uncertain, it is complex and, certainly there is ambiguity. We just can’t predict the future with the certainty that we used to have,” Sharman said.
But it wasn’t all sombre news. “When will the pandemic end? We don’t know,” he added. “What we can be sure of is that it will be a brave new world when it begins.”
And the EHS industry was certainly going to do its part. “The word of the congress, I think, is ‘collaboration’,” he suggested. “The word underlines exactly what we have been doing here. Whether we are participants, speakers or panellists – whether we’re keynote speakers or contributors – we have been working together for the greater good.”
He asked that everyone share ideas and practices, tools and techniques. “By exposing ourselves [to these forums] with a measure of humility, what we’re doing is increasing the potential of learning.”
He commended the speakers who promoted the idea that H&S professionals and leaders should get closer to the workforce, get on the shop floor or job-swop to understand what jobs are like from the perspective of others.
Human error was the opening keynote of Professor Sidney Dekker, who spoke on “The Case for Doing Safety Differently”.
“If you want to understand why people did what they did, you have to put yourself in their shoes, and look at their situation from the inside, without knowing the outcome,” he said. “Their decisions aren’t driven by the outcome, because they didn’t know it. It is driven by what made sense at the time – given their goals, given their knowledge, given their focus of attention at that moment.”
In other words, it was not appropriate to use human error as a scapegoat for everything that might go wrong in an organisation.
“Stopping things from going wrong shouldn’t be our main task,” Dekker said. “We need to understand why things go well – that yields a lot more insight and a lot more safety progress within organisations.”
He noted that human error is a label that is stuck on behaviour – it isn’t a thing in and of itself. “It is not a psychological category of detrimental performance or something that we can easily find in what people are doing.”
If you put people in a complex situation, where there are many error opportunities, simply telling them not to make errors won’t be particularly helpful. “You can put posters up, tell them to watch out, and to be more careful, but it doesn’t work,” he said. “Instead of trying to eradicate human error, we need to eradicate the biases that we introduce when we try to understand it to begin with.”
He said that a useful way to look at human error was as a consequence (not a cause) of trouble. “It is part of the system … If you want to address behaviour, you have to address the conditions under which that behaviour is produced – because it is systematically connected to and feeds through to people’s tools and tasks. So, don’t target the behaviour; target the situation that produces that behaviour.”
An aim of “Safety Differently” was to halt or push back on the ever-expanding bureaucratisation and compliance of work, he said. “It sees people not as a problem to control, but as a resource to harness.”
The approach of Safety Differently is to avoid telling people what to do and instead to ask them what they need to be successful. Safety thus becomes an ethical responsibility for people, assets and communities, instead of a bureaucratic accountability to managers, boards and regulators.
Anna Keen, founding director of Acre Frameworks, expanded on this theme in her presentation: “How to Attract, Develop and Retain the Best Talent in EHS”. She noted that H&S practitioners have to improve their skills in empathy and offered a simple model for recruitment.
As Sharman summarised: “We need to discard, we need to explore and we need to experiment.”
He noted that another word that stood out during the event was “curiosity”. “I have been impressed by all the participants’ curiosity during the congress, as you fired, non-stop, questions into the chat box to share with one another. That curiosity is something that we need to hold on to as we step back into this brave new world that is beginning to unfold in front of us right now.”