Safety planning for human error

Ken Anderson and Morpeth Rotary Club President Rhona Dunn.
Ken Anderson and Morpeth Rotary Club President Rhona Dunn.

Morpeth Rotary Club

Ken Anderson is Director for Environment and Health and Safety at Siemens Power Generation Service Division. The work covers the operation of 54 wind farms and a number of power stations.

It takes health and safety very seriously, but it is not the silly lack of common sense that sometimes hits the headlines. Normal life has an element of risk and sensible regulations do not seek to ban the playing of conkers. You can throw sweets into the audience at pantos, run egg and spoon races and wear ties at school, but a professional approach in the workplace is important.

In 2014-15, 142 workers were killed at work in the UK and there were 76,000 reportable accidents. A total of 27.3 million working days were lost due to accidents causing injury and work-related illness. The estimated cost was £14.3billion.

There were 551 prosecutions by the Health and Safety Executive in England and Wales last year and 35 in Scotland, with a further 88 by local authorities, and 12,430 enforcement notices served. By contrast there are 6,000 deaths in home incidents each year.

The key reason is mistakes being made and there is a need to allow for this in a fail-safe way.

At the start of World War II there were more Spitfires lost in accidents than were shot down. Many were caused by pilots not putting down the landing gear. It was only when changes were made to designs that many accidents ceased. The landing gear handle was made different to all of the others and a light was set to go on when the gear was down.

The Piper Alpha fire of 1988, where 167 died, was a due to a catalogue of human errors. The rig was designed for oil, but was used for gas, the sprinkler system had been switched off, a second rig nearby was shut down, but the third continued to pump, and that fed the fire.

The Columbia space shuttle of 2003 blew up and killed seven. Foam tiles had been seen falling off and flying around but they did not think the tiles could damage the wing. There had been pressure to save time and cut costs. There was nothing wrong with the science, it was human error.

There are similar challenges in power generation with pressure to make money and to get power stations back on line quickly.

Health and safety professionals must plan and train for systems that recognise human nature and the pressures on employees that might cause mistakes. There is a difference between work planned and work implemented, and a culture is needed that will allow people to say what has gone wrong and to learn from it. Lessons have to be learnt, leading to better systems that allow for the human element.

Health and Safety professionals are the interface between people, psychology and systems. They must make sure that employees are fit enough to do the demanding work and that being at work does not cause death, injury or damage to health.

A vote of thanks was given by Jim Miller.