Understanding Human Factors in Occupational Safety

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Office workers evacuatingKnowledge of human factors goes beyond understanding individual employees to include many other aspects of the modern workplace. It is a fascinating study of interrelated elements and behaviors that allows for measurable improvements through both cultural and procedure change. Here is a quick look at the basics:

What are human factors?

According to a definition shared by the World Health Organization, human factors “refer to environmental, organizational and job factors, and human and individual characteristics which influence behavior at work in a way which can affect health and safety.”

These factors can be further isolated to include several specific elements as follows:

  1. Tasks, workload and work patterns.
  2. Working environment and workplace design.
  3. Workplace culture and communication.
  4. Leadership and resources.
  5. Policies, programs and procedures.
  6. Worker competency and skill.
  7. Employee attitude, personality and risk tolerance.

How do human factors impact safety?

The thing to remember when looking at human factors is the fact that everyone in the workplace is indeed “only human.” Thus, they are fallible. Accidents can normally be attributed to one of three actions:

  1. Errors and unintentional mistakes.
  2. Poor judgment and bad decision making.
  3. Disregard for procedures.

Most workplaces are adept at identifying obvious hazards and providing basic safety training upon hiring new employees. However, the evaluation of human factors should be an ongoing effort that involves all employees. Only by understanding human factors, can an occupational safety professional seek out ways to mitigate risk with stopgap measures that prevent accidents before they occur.

What about ergonomics? Is that a human factor?

Yes.  OSHA recommends a periodic review of workplace conditions and processes in order to proactively identify potential issues with ergonomics. This is includes looking at the facility as a whole, as well as assessing individual workstations and working practices.  Workers’ compensation, injury and illness reports will also provide insight into problem areas. The danger of poor ergonomics is primarily that of musculoskeletal disorders, which are caused by repetitive motion, excessive use of bodily force, awkward posture, temperature extremes, or a combination of these factors.

Can risks from human factors be eliminated?

No dangers can be fully eliminated from a workplace. However, proper education can go a long way in mitigating risk. Initial safety training is a standard practice for most organizations. Unfortunately, safety manuals and curriculum can be quickly outdated. New OHSA regulations emerge on a periodic basis and should be shared as must-know information for employees at different levels. Requiring regular safety update meetings or webinars will ensure that everyone receives the same message. Putting up a poster is not enough.

What if the training is not enough to prevent risky behavior?

The principles of maintaining a safe workplace begin at the top. It is the responsibility of the executive leadership team to create a zero-tolerance culture that is embraced at all levels of the organization. The mandate to work safely is not up for discussion. Individuals who engage in risky behavior need to be called out, and ultimately culled out from the company.

Learn More

Learn to identify and analyze potential workplace hazards, infractions and risks through a bachelor of science in occupational safety online. At Eastern Kentucky University, you will gain a graduate-level education by industry-experienced educators and fire and safety professionals who are committed to teaching and preparing you for continued success.


World Health Organization “Human Factors in PaƟent Safety Review of Topics and Tools”

EHSToday.com, “The Human Dynamics of Injury Prevention”

OSHA.gov “Ergonomics”