Home' Inclean : INCLEAN MAR-APL 2016 Contents 14 INCLEAN March/April 2016
By Dr Denis Boulais*
In 2015, I attended the American Society
of Safety Engineers Conference (Safety
2015) in Dallas, Texas–one of the world’s
largest safety conferences. As a speaker at
the conference, I was granted full access to
all its events.
Throughout the conference, I
consistently heard that research indicated
more than 75 per cent of incidents were
due to human error. This data really drove home the fact that
while we spend so much time and money on traditional safety
systems, resources may be better allocated towards addressing
safety behaviour and its training.
Still, with 12 years’ experience as a risk manager focusing on
workers’ compensation, safety and injury management in the
cleaning industry, that 75 per cent figure didn’t seem quite right.
So, I commenced a process of examining previous incidents.
According to my calculations with the data I had available,
65.5 per cent of incidents within the cleaning industry may
originate from some variety of human error. The only explanation
I can propose for this variance is that my data presents an older
workforce; the average age of the cleaners in my analysis is 52.
This is further reflected when one considers that according to the
Australian Bureau of Statistics the median age of an Australian
worker is 40.
As I further explored the data, it became evident that 51.5 per cent
of these human error-related incidents were a result of ‘not looking
before moving.’ Some examples of such incidents were:
• A cleaner walked past a parked forklift when she tripped on
the lowered tines. She does the walk daily, but she was looking
elsewhere on this occasion.
• A cleaner bent down to pick up a hand towel in a bathroom.
When he stood up, he cut his scalp on the teeth of the hand
• A cleaner was walking through a car park and hit her head on a
flagged ladder protruding from a truck. The cleaner was simply
When one does the same task over and over, the mind–your
biggest safety tool–can switch to autopilot. All you need is for
someone to do something out of the ordinary and your risk of
an incident is increased. This is a particular risk in the cleaning
industry as cleaning tasks are often part of a daily routine in order
to comply with prescribed specifications.
When exploring the basis of human error from an incident
investigation perspective, a knowledge of the Swiss Cheese
Model of risk developed by British scientist James Reason can
offer great transparency.
In the illustration below, the slices of cheese act as defensive layers
in a process and the holes in the cheese are opportunities for the
process to fail. An error may permit a problem to pass through a
hole in one layer, but if the holes are in different places in the next
layer then the issue should be caught. Howevever, if the holes all line
up, then the system is flawed and could result in incident.
(Reason. J, 2000. Human Error – Models and Management. BMJ
Volume 320 - 18.03.2000).
Let’s look at this concept with an example of a cleaning manager
driving between sites:
• The manager has the option of taking a couple of routes, but he
or she chooses a route with heavy traffic. This represents the first
slice of cheese and may be referred to as the ‘traffic awareness’ slice
where the hole, or issue, is the high traffic volume.
• The manager has not kept up servicing on his vehicle and its tyres
have low tread. This represents the second slice of cheese and may
be referred to as the ‘safe vehicle’ slice where the issue is the low
• It’s raining heavily while the manager drives. This represents
the third slice of cheese and may be referred to as the ‘safe road
conditions’ slice where the issue is the heavy rain.
• The phone rings and the manager is focused on an important
hands-free conversation. This represents the fourth slice of cheese
and may be referred to as the ‘driver awareness’ slice where the
issue is concentration.
When all the above issues line up, a car accident occurs.
However, there is the opportunity to significantly reduce the
chance of an incident (which in the above case was a car accident)
in each of the cheese slices. For example, had there been good tread
on car’s tyres in the ‘safe vehicle’ slice, there is a possibility the
chance of the car accident could have been significantly reduced.
In conclusion, it is important to understand that the more safety
defences one can establish, the better. The fewer and smaller the holes
in each slice of cheese, the higher likelihood issues will be stopped
before an incident occurs.
*Denis Boulais is national risk manager for Broadlex Services Pty
Developing behavioural safety
defences to reduce OH&S risks
“I hence speculate that older
cleaners may have received more
training over time and are more
experienced and less prone to
incidents involving human error.”
Dr Denis Boulais
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