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David Bryan BSc, CMIOSH, CMAPS

What Causes Mistakes and Near Misses at Work?

September 2019

Mistakes are not inevitable and near misses can be avoided. Improving the culture of businesses and teams is fundamental to effective health and safety management. So, what is a mistake and how might this lead to a near miss?

I will review how we might better understand and deal with mistakes at work by looking a the psychological research behind it. This information can help you to reconsider how you approach incidents at work and reduce the likelihood of near misses.

A climate survey tool is a great start to find out what people really think about how health and safety is managed in the workplace. (Climate survey tools can be found on the HSE website). We will then look at learning through mistakes and near misses.

Different kinds of mistakes

The HSE publication HSG 48 -“Reducing error and influencing behaviour” provides a useful definition of mistakes as a “complex type of human error where we do the wrong thing believing it to be right”. These types of errors involve a failure to mentally process information correctly; this inevitably leads to mistakes being made. This is different from deliberate “rule violations”.An example of another bias leading to incorrect judgements is an “overconfidence effect”. This describes the difference in what people actually know and what they think they know.

Biases such as these two examples can be avoided by challenging our own thoughts and considering how the information given to the workforce is understood.

Review how you deal with mistakes and near misses

So, although it’s a complex picture, we can do a lot to reduce the chance of people making mistakes in their jobs. This process should be used when conducting risk assessments, developing safe systems of work and carrying out incident investigations. Asking simple questions such as “is the rule appropriate and fully understood?” will help to identify how and where mistakes might be made.

So, if we want to improve our health and safety culture, we must deal with our mistakes and near misses effectively and communicate clearly. A positive and open health and safety culture that welcomes the reporting of near misses will enable us all to learn from our mistakes.

Find out more

If you need to discuss any health and safety issues you have at work including human factors, safety culture or accident prevention we offer training and consultancy visit our Workplace training section.

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