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There are lots of theories around the dynamics of the workplace, with multiple papers in particular discussing the characteristics of ‘High Reliability Organisations’ (HROs). Although described as “organisations where failure may have far-reaching, potentially catastrophic consequences”, the fundamental principles are worth a look for any high-risk organisation that wants to drive safety improvements. According to the HSE such organisations will typically be characterised by:

  • Interactive complexity i.e. interaction among system components is unpredictable and/or invisible, and
  • Tight coupling (there’s a high degree of interdependence among a system’s components including people, equipment and procedures).

HRO’s will also aim for successful containment of unexpected events by:

  • Having back-up systems in place in the event of failures and cross-checking of important decisions (redundancy),
  • Allowing people with expertise, irrespective of rank, to make important safety related decisions in emergencies – while during routine operations there is a clear hierarchical structure and an understanding of who is responsible for what
  • Investment in training and technical competence, and
  • Well-defined procedures for all possible unexpected events.

In addition an HRO demonstrates effective anticipation of potential failures through:

  • Engagement with front line staff in order to obtain ‘the bigger picture’ of operations (sensitivity to operations),
  • Attentiveness to minor or what may appear as trivial signals that may indicate potential problem areas within the organisation and using incidents and near misses as indicators of a system’s ‘health’ (preoccupation with failure),
  • Systematic collection and analysis of all warning signals, no matter how trivial they may appear to be, and avoiding making assumptions regarding the nature of failures. Explanations regarding the causes of incidents tend to be systemic rather than focusing on individual, ‘blame the operator’ justifications (reluctance to simplify).

HROs have a ‘just’ culture which is defined by:

  • Open reporting systems for near misses and accidents without fear of punishment,
  • Follow-up of accident investigation outcomes by implementing corrective actions,
  • Empowering staff to abandon work on safety grounds, and
  • Fostering a sense of personal accountability for safety.

In addition, such organisations show an orientation to learning, illustrated by:

  • Continuous technical training,
  • Systematic analysis of incidents to identify their root causes and accident types or trends within the organisation,
  • Open communication of accident investigation outcomes, and
  • Updating procedures in line with the organisational knowledge base.

The final characteristic identified is mindful leadership, as shown by:

  • Proactive commissions of audits to identify problems in the system (often in response to incidents that occur in other similar industries),
  • ‘Bottom-up’ communication of ‘bad news’,
  • Engagement with front line staff through site visits,
  • Investment of resources in safety management and the ability to balance profits with safety.

Fundamentally, these characteristics add up to a safety culture with employees at its heart, where they are encouraged to participate in safety to identify, assess and control hazards proactively. Another important facet of the structure is the preoccupation with failure – rather than applauding the success of avoiding an incident, such organisations use near-miss events as an opportunity to implement improvements.

Another, similar school of thought is resilience engineering. According to HSE this has been applied in several high-risk environments, such as in aviation, petrochemical and nuclear power industries and involves helping organisations to both avoid failures and be able to recover quickly once these have occurred.

Researchers have proposed that resilience may be ‘engineered’ into a business by incorporating the following:

• Just culture: this means that there is an open accident and near miss reporting system within the organisation, and individuals are supported and able to suspend work on safety grounds without fear of being penalised for their decisions. The notion of a just culture often encompasses a ‘no blame’ approach to mistakes. However, the development of a just culture requires a balance between supporting the reporting of incidents and near misses on one hand and not tolerating unacceptable behaviours on the other e.g., distinction must be made between unacceptable or blameworthy behaviour that requires disciplinary action and other types of behaviour (such as necessary violations arising from inadequacies in the equipment or workplace which make compliance with procedures unfeasible).

• Management commitment: Management balances the pressures of production with safety and management behaviour sends the clear message that safety is as or more important than other business objectives.

• Increased flexibility: systems should be designed in a way to support individuals in carrying out their jobs and individuals should have the discretion to make decisions when necessary without having to wait for management instructions.

• Learning culture: The organisation learns from experience by systematically gathering and analysing near misses and incidents and encouraging the reporting of incidents; and by disseminating and sharing best practice. For instance, focusing on how procedures are implemented during normal working practices can help identify any gaps between how managers think that procedures should be used and how they are actually applied by front line staff.

• Preparedness: The organisation is proactive in its safety management and is able to anticipate problems, changes and hazards. Preparedness captures the ability to anticipate all potential threats and eventualities.

• Opacity/Awareness: The organisation collects and analyses information that enables the identification of weaknesses in its defences. In an informed culture the organisation has an understanding of both the hazards that it faces and the adequacy (or lack thereof) of its defences to control them.

• Resources: Resources, which may take the form of either additional staff or time to respond to emergencies for example, are crucial to enabling organisations to respond to unexpected events.

In summary, the resilience engineering perspective shares much in common with the HRO approach and offers principles that can be implemented by organisations to improve their reliability and safety performance. Both highlight the importance of fostering a just culture, management commitment to safety and allowing individuals the latitude of making important safety-related decisions.

Find more resources about workforce health and safety on our website here www.wearable.technology/downloads or contact us to find out how a Connected Worker Solution complements a robust safety culture and empowers individuals to take responsibility for their own safety.

With thanks to HSE: High reliability organisations, a review of the literature, Dr Chrysanthi Lekka.

Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.