Human error, and aligning risk acceptance with company culture

Human error is involved in many equipment breakdown events or accidents. This human failure may be in the original design, the wrong application of equipment, a failure to operate or maintain equipment correctly or simply a mistake.

As a response to these human errors, companies and organizations have developed controls designed to minimize the human element factor. Control methods include the use of codes, industry standards, best practices, training and automation.

All of these are ineffective if not supported by the company culture. Company culture involves employee attitudes about the control methods and is the most important aspect of risk management.

“Do you have written operating procedures?”

This is a common first question at onsite risk review meetings. While in the control room we ask to see the written operating procedures.

Usually, the operator can quickly pick up the well-thumbed book and easily walk us through the procedures. This is always a positive sign of an organization that values written procedures and updates them based on experience.

On occasion, the operator walks over to a bookshelf, searches for a bit, pulls out a book, blows off the dust and silently hands it over. This indicates a corporate culture whereby they recognize the need for operating procedures but they do not actually use them in everyday practice.

As another example, at a site visit we asked about lockout/tagout procedures (steps to ensure machines are safely shut off for servicing). They discussed their program and presented current, approved copies of a well-developed plan. However, while walking through the plant, we saw a closed valve on high-pressure piping.

The valve handle had a safety chain, lock, and tag attached. However, the chain was incorrectly attached allowing the valve handle to be operated. While operating procedures were issued, a closer look revealed the negating effects of human error. This human error presented a great risk to personnel and equipment.

A strong company safety culture is key to reducing risks in any business

Valuable insight came from another site visit after we asked a risk manager to describe his biggest problem or concern. He stated that most employees have a personal level of risk acceptance that is greater than the company’s risk acceptance level.

He fights every day to encourage and communicate a safe workplace mindset and culture. We saw examples during the walk-through that his message was received and making a positive difference.

What is your personal level of risk acceptance and are you contributing to a strong culture of safety and risk reduction?


© 2018 The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company. All rights reserved. This article is for informational purposes only and does not modify or invalidate any of the provisions, exclusions, terms or conditions of the applicable policy and endorsements. For specific terms and conditions, please refer to the applicable coverage form.

Patrick Jennings

Pat is the go-to engineer for boilers at HSB. He has been crawling around, studying, talking and writing about boilers for almost 30 years.

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