Human Factors Round table - 3rd September 2019

by Laura Aucott

On the 3rd September, 13 senior Safety professionals gathered for a breakfast round table event at The Highfield, Edgbaston, Birmingham, on the subject of Human factors.

This event was hosted by HSE Recruitment and Finch Consulting, and ably chaired by Dr Richard Brown, a principal consultant at Finch Consulting and an expert in the area of human factors.

Delegates: Paul Humphreys (PH), Heath Ralphson (HR), Sophia Darwin (SD), Chris Rowlands (CR) David Cant (DC), John Fairclough (JF), Pam Brown (PB), Dr Shelley Stiles (SS), Matthew Green (MG), Gerry Mullholland (GM), Mike Keating (MK), Phil O’Neil (PO), Chris Johnson (CJ0, Marcella Davies (MD), Laura Aucott (LA) and Dr Richard Brown (RB).

As Human Factors is such a wide area of interest, RB thought it would be best to start by getting an overview from all of their delegates of both their understanding of HF and the area that they were most interested in, so that we could narrow down the initial direction for the conversation. There was a general agreement in the room that the main area of interest lay in the impact of leadership, culture and behavioural intervention as a starting point, and Richard agreed that Human Factors and behavioural intervention shouldn’t be an afterthought but a basic ingredient of building your safety system. There was some initial talk around the future of human factors over the next ten years with the advent of the fourth industrial revolution, drone works, collaborative robots etc but it was agreed that things probably won’t change that quickly in the safety world, and it was more importantly initially to focus on the here and now with HF.

CJ raised the point that we had to remember to get the basics right before looking at human factors, and get our companies to the point where there were occurring correctly and consistently – it is important not to run before you can walk. RB added however that human considerations must be considered at the start of any process and are central in any safety management system. He used the example that culture and behaviours could be considered to be a key ingredient such as flour as opposed the ‘icing on the cake’, i.e. not an afterthought.

PH mentioned that during his career he had been shown case studies from British Sugar as an example of what a mature organisation is able to do with human factors and CJ mentioned that they have had some real success in the past. One of the issue can be that they have spent a lot of time developing a mindset internally, but as they grow they take on new people with new mindsets so it is important to stay on top of everyone to keep the belief in the system, and also ensure that there is no hierarchical system internally, as this can be detrimental to human factors work.

RB mentioned that he has always had issues with observation based behavioural safety programmes, as observing people when there are issues isn’t the best indication of how things work on a day to day basis, and wondered if others felt the same? HR agreed that observation based programmes can change behaviour and usually end up with less authentic reactions from participants. SS mentioned that she had been forced to implement behavioural observations previously and that traditionally they are badly thought out – she did think there was some benefit to them, but not as they are traditionally approached. She also mentioned that it is important to observe the whole supply chain during these programmes.

GM gave an example of an observation based programme during a previous role, where eager to show they were participating two employees crossed a four lane highway in order to correct someone’s PPE (!) therefore showing that the mere fact of being observed can have an impact on people’s behaviour considerably out of the ordinary.

MK – then mentioned one of the areas he struggles with is creating leaders- to counter this he empathises that not everyone can be a safety manager, but we can all be safety leaders. RB agreed that if you get the leaders right it can really filter the message down to the shop floor. GM mentioned another important factor was the sort of indicators used within the business. CJ mentioned that had previously used a lot of lagging indicators but that they are moving forward trying to focus on leading indicators – however standard models do tend to be lagging oriented. PB agreed and mentioned that even CSR focuses on lagging, which can be a frustration.

CJ agreed – and thought that breaking that mould is key, trying to build metrics that work for everyone is tricky, and it took them two years to get to this point internally, again he reminded us it is important not to run before they can walk. SS talked about how human factors comes in looking at the metrics, and wondered what the unintended consequences of this could be and what this may affect later on?

RB said that good shift managers can be a real benefit to safety, they are production oriented which means they can be your best friend or your worst enemy, so it is important to work with them in the right way.

JF thought it was important for organisations to understand that programmes can take time to build, and that people really need to want to be involved and make change for them to work effectively. He mentioned that in the oil and gas sector a lot of employees would make up issues or observations to add to the system, in order to say they had hit the minimum requirements, so a big focus was on getting everyone engaged and understanding at all levels, so that they received true information. MK agreed, it is all about how you sell it internally. He told the group that on site they have hazard reporting with no targets and no KPI’s that works, but it has taken them a few years to get there. It is important to get continuous reports to start with in order to see patterns and find route causes so that these can be addressed. It can sometimes be difficult to get people to “grass” on their colleagues, so re-wiring their thinking is the first challenge.

GM agreed, and said another reason that they had previously struggled with a lot of under reporting was due to employees fixing things as they went along, rather than reporting it and waiting, and SS agreed, but commented would we rather people identify safety risks and put them right, than report them and not action them? MK agreed, that on site people may put a hose away and think they are doing the right thing, but without reporting the root cause cannot be found. Everyone agreed that if the employees have this explained to them, they understand and this is the first step to accurate reporting.

PO mentioned we should look at development programmes, to give people management and leadership capability internally as often people are promoted for being good at their job but given any advice on support on how to then manage their friends and colleagues moving forward, which is when standards can slip. DC agreed, and also suggested that too much paperwork can be a problem here as the managers then see this as an admin burden as opposed to an integral part of their role as they did when they were boots on the ground.

HR also mentioned how important actions of the back of reporting were, as employees quickly learned whether reports were actioned, and if they weren’t this contributed to a negative culture. MK said it is important that all employees can see what has happened with the risk reports whether they can be fixed instantly or not, so that they understand what is happening and why, clear communication is key. PH mentioned that obviously a lot of things internally do come down to money, but that clear communication of what is happening and why does help counter issues around that.

SS asked if anyone had any examples of senior leadership walk arounds and how they had worked, and what constitutes effective? GM mentioned that he likes to pick out two employees to personally engage with on each walk around, saying hello to everyone but asking more pertinent and thoughtful questions of a few – this affects relationships in the long run, and was effective at combating absenteeism. MK mentioned he has a manager working oversees who does similar, and goes to a different farm each week asking what employees do, and learning about them and their role and that this had also really helped with engagement and culture, improved accident numbers and improved compliance. GM the downside to visible leadership is that it can have a detrimental effect when done badly.


CJ agreed, it is great when leadership is done right but has such an impact when not implemented effectively. It is important to lead from the front, and not using the mentality of “do as I say, not as I do” i.e. can’t criticise reporting figures if they aren’t reporting accurately themselves! SS agreed, the trick is to get safety at the forefront of everything, done day in day out. RB agreed but said what companies also forget is that good people do sometimes move on, so it is so important that good practices trickle down, so that things continue when they aren’t around/move on. RB gave the example of a leader practising what he preaches i.e. his actions on the shop floor reflecting his words. This helps to build positive safety culture slowly. However, if a leader goes out and for example ignores an unsafe action (particularly if that action assists with £ or production) the that negative message filters very swiftly to front line supervisors and shop floor workers. RB gave the example of culture as improvements being incremental like walking up steep steps, but that poor safety culture is more like going down a children’s slide.

MK commented that he thought the next big step is to step away from the concept of safety culture, and focus on organisational culture instead. Turning a culture of safety into a culture of excellence. The company values need to underpin the company culture, and values don’t necessarily meant the same top everyone so it is important to figure out how people identify with them at all levels. HR agreed and said they promote safety to the business as their “licence to operate” as opposed to something that is at the forefront of what they do. Without safety, there would be no business.

CR asked whether anyone had any experience of actually measuring success that they could share with the group? MK mentioned that they use a tool to measure the quality of their safety culture and are looking at how they could further use that to measure organisational culture moving forward. SS mentioned that using focus groups adds a lot of value in this area, but that there need to be a number of different methods used to measure success effectively. GM uses a variety of different surveys, as perception is very individual, and wondered what people thought of the use of rewards and recognition? RB mentioned he personally has a pathological aversion to reward based schemes. SS mentioned she prefers creating “good news” rather than incentives. She likes to focus on simple team rules that they create around respect and then ask them how or if they would like to be rewarded.

She offers basic rewards such as pizza, or earlier home times, but empowers the teams to manage it themselves, and says they are very honest if they feel they don’t believe they deserve the reward. RB said it is important to break down the walls internally for culture to thrive, and asked MG how he managed this looking after so many different countries?

MG said that he adopts the oil and gas “golden rules” and look at their top risks and how they are managed as their lines in the sand for all departments and countries. This works very well, especially when reporting back to the board, but that it does take a look of work to bring some sites and countries up to those standards. It is also important to understand what “floats peoples boats” in different countries and cultures as they can vary massively, and what works well for one site doesn’t necessarily for others. Most important he felt as the holistic side of what we do, particularly the communication piece. RB agreed, and said there is no problem disagreeing or saying no to ideas but it is always important to communicate why and what is happening. He added that feedback based on risk, or excessive costs were acceptable to workers as long as communication channels were open and honest. Speaking about reporting issues again, MD mentioned that they encourage line managers to offer individual thanks to employees for reporting, and once a month pick out one or two reports to recognise. GM agreed and said they do something similar, and pick reports to focus on at random so they can highlight areas to focus on and offer personal recognition. MD thought it is always good to include employees on the actions from reporting, and to ensure information is easy to disseminate within a team meeting or similar, rather than multi page newsletters.

RB finished up by saying that historically safety professionals have assumed that they know best, but actually the whole entirety of the work force needs to be involved, including operators, in the design of policy and systems, for safety to work effectively, which was agreed with by all.

All attendees thought that this was a good overview of the subject so far, but agreed that they would like to delve more into the technical aspects of human factors, so the idea of a further subcommittee was raised, with regular meetings at various delegate sites. For more information on this group once it is formed, or to get involved, please contact

Thank you once again to Dr Richard Brown for chairing the discussion so well, to Finch Consulting for hosting the event, and to all of our delegates for their attendance and fantastic engagement. Human Factors is certainly a fascinating subject and one that can be discussed for a long time, but it was great to kick start a discussion and to share experiences across industry!

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