Feeling the pulse of the workforce

Having worked with some of the world’s most demanding organisations, such as major oil and gas operators, fire and rescue and ministerial departments, I have acute awareness of the importance of human factors, in particular the decision-making processes that individuals go through in the workplace, especially in high-pressure environments. 

All industries benefit from insight into these non-technical skills and my research has shown time and again that they are vital for safe and effective performance, particularly in such high-hazard environments – not least the oil and gas industry. 

People are the heart of any business. And the successful 21st-century business should know and understand its workforce, identifying what makes them tick and putting the support systems in place to help them meet their potential.  Having a finger on that pulse of your business is what is known as the human factor, and don’t underestimate the power of that pulse.

Human factors are defined by the UK Health and Safety Executive as “…environmental, organisational and job factors, and human and individual characteristics, which influence behaviour at work in a way which can affect health and safety”.

Understanding how an individual performs tasks in the workplace, through their actions alone and interactions with others, and the influences on performance, I can identify the skills required by individuals and teams, highlighting where training and coaching can enhance these skills. From a safety perspective, assessing competency and investigating incidents and near misses to capture the human factor aspects, can shed light on what has contributed to the event. 

While we provide technical training, my focus is on the complementary non-technical skills that the individual needs to be able to perform their job safely. These social, cognitive and personal skills complement technical knowledge.

The skills are represented by effective teamwork and good communication, which is led by the ability to assess situations, make decisions and demonstrate leadership, and supported by a work/life balance to lessen the effects 
of stress and fatigue. This is a measurable outcome which has been assessed in a number of industries such as medicine and aviation to understand how human and organisational factors impact on team performance and safety. 

Attitudes describe a person’s state of readiness, or a tendency to respond in a certain manner when confronted with certain stimuli, and includes beliefs, opinions, values, and preferences.

Attitudes can lead to specific patterns of behaviours or action tendencies, so to have an understanding of what makes your workforce tick is hugely beneficial. Training in non-technical skills aims to improve attitudes and therefore increase safety and performance.

In the past, I’ve been involved with a number of investigations following safety incidents. These investigations typically adopt a technical and managerial analysis of the incident. The human and social factors are seldom fully examined and reported, especially in the detail that they deserve. Indeed, investigations often halt at the level of identifying “human error” as a contributory factor.

Decision-making both before and during an event is often criticised in post-event reports, yet these decisions have frequently been based on a lack of situation awareness, which itself may be a result of inadequate communication, ineffective teamwork and increased stress. By investigating and reporting the impact of human factors, improvements in terms of preparing individuals and teams to manage incidents can be made. It is crucial that organisations acknowledge that human error exists, but also that steps can be taken to learn from those errors and to manage future situations. 

This understanding is even more important during challenging times. The oil and gas industry currently faces an uncertain economic climate and casts real doubt over the future for many. At times like these, is the focus fully on the job at hand – did I remember to reduce the pressure before I release that valve? Did I fasten that equipment in the correct manner to make it safe for my work colleagues? – this reiterates the importance of understanding your workforce, knowing what makes them tick, feeling the pulse.

Dr Margaret Crichton is a world-renowned leader in the development of human factors. 

Her insight complements best-practice technical knowledge with enhanced appreciation for the human factors, a profound understanding of how we operate as individuals, and the impact that has on our daily job. Dr Crichton’s background includes a breadth of experience in a number of sectors from oil and gas to aviation, from 999-emergency services to governmental administrations throughout the globe.


By Dr Margaret Crichton, managing director of People Factor Consultants.

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