Human Error in the Workplace: Preventable through Employee Buy-In?

Posted on 5/26/2011 5:02:29 PM

If a worker makes a mistake that leads to an accident, should that employee take the blame? Maybe not, according to IUP Safety Sciences professor Jan Wachter.

Wachter believes that human error in the workplace, while not completely preventable, can be managed by better tools to motivate and engage workers in the safety process.

“While human error has been associated with the majority of incidents in the workplace, it can be managed through a variety of mechanisms. But motivation and worker engagement may be the keys to human-error reduction,” he said.

Wachter will test this theory in a research project that recently received $90,000 in funding from the Alcoa Foundation.

The key difference in this study, as opposed to other research on safety in the workplace, is that Wachter will investigate how well—or how poorly—workers are engaged, or buying into, a shared accountability for identifying at-risk situations and responding to them.

For example, a worker may forget her safety glasses and get glass or metal shards in her eye. Wachter suggests that this type of accident could be prevented through methods of worker engagement. That is, before each work shift, employees may get together and remind each other of the specific personal protective equipment needed for that day’s task.

In this study, Wachter will investigate the role and degree of worker-engagement practices in preventing human error and improving safety performance by conducting supervisor and employee surveys and interviewing companies for best practices related to worker engagement in their safety systems and programs.

It is believed that actively engaged employees demonstrate a greater sense of personal ownership and compliance with safe work methods, adjust more quickly to needed changes in safety practices, and act proactively to ensure that work is being done in the safest way possible, Wachter said.

He hopes that the outcomes of this research, once instituted in the workplace, could reduce lost workdays due to accidents by 20 percent.

Wachter will collaborate on the project with IUP Safety Sciences professor Patrick Yorio.

IUP has a history of collaboration and support with the Alcoa Foundation and Alcoa Inc. In November 2007, IUP received a $100,000 grant to partner with the Alcoa Foundation to present a two-day conference in Pittsburgh on workplace fatalities.

About Jan Wachter

Wachter has more than twenty-five years of experience in the government, private, and academic sectors, primarily in the field of environmental health and safety.

Jan Wachter, Safety Sciences professor, in the classroom

He has held a variety of supervisory research and administrative positions within the U.S. Department of Energy’s national laboratory complexes and is a senior environmental health and safety associate for private sector companies. He has both a master’s degree and doctorate in environmental health, a Master of Business Administration, and a bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry from the University of Pittsburgh.

Classes Wachter teaches at IUP include Environmental Safety and Health Regulations, Hazard Prevention Management II, Safe Living: A Challenge in Modern Society, and Radiological Health.

About Patrick Yorio

Yorio earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from IUP. He is a senior professional in human resources, a certified safety professional and a certified workers’ compensation advisor.

Courses he teaches include Introduction to Occupational Safety and Health and Hazard Prevention Management.