Human Failure Series: Mistakes

October 24, 2017





In the last article we explored ‘Skill Based Errors’ which is one of 2 different types of ‘Human Error'.  In this blog we will cover the other type – Mistakes.


Mistakes is the term given to human errors that are intentional, deliberate and are also known as ‘decision making failures’ for that reason. In short, you think you are behaving in the correct way. For example, you manoeuvre to overtake the slow moving vehicle in front of you but fail to leave enough room to see through the overtaking due to oncoming cars.


They can be defined as rule-based mistakes, where rules are applied incorrectly or a poor set of rules are applied to a situation.  And, ‘knowledge based mistakes’ where no rule exists and the operator incorrectly applies their own knowledge to the situation – but gets it wrong.  


How do mistakes happen?

Mistakes are still a human error in that we can be forced into a situation where we make bad decisions. They happen because:


  • You may be trying to do too much in one go.

  • Multiple complicated tasks are being performed.

  • Looming deadlines or other time pressures.


How can you reduce the risk of mistakes?


  • The workplace – The working conditions can give rise to mistakes, especially where the work environment is uncomfortable.  Making sure that lighting, temperature, ventilation, avoiding restrictions, dealing with noise levels all help to reduce the occurrence of mistakes.

  • Peak work periods – Try to level out peak periods where possible, reduce repetitive tasks, distractions and rotate boring job tasks.

  • Psycho social – maintain a positive social situation in the workplace.  Dealing with conflicts such as peer pressure, conflicting demands etc.

  • Personal factors – Educating staff regarding alcohol use, health, fitness as well as providing support for ill health or other personal issues such as family problems.

  • Work equipment – avoid complicated or difficult to use equipment. Clear work instructions and safe systems of work.

  • Organisation – Ensure you know where mistakes can occur and train your staff accordingly.  Make sure you have monitoring regimes that are looking at the right tasks, processes and people.


Remember, ‘mistakes’ are decision based errors.  Making sure that where you can predict non-routine tasks that are high risk that you put in place clear procedures and training to control the risks.  Training staff to be aware of these high risk task helps to increase situational awareness and reduces the likelihood of knowledge being applied incorrectly or rules failing to work as expected.


Having systems in place and good supervision to cover the ‘what-ifs’ will go a long way to reducing mistakes.


Thinking Point

Make a list of non-routine tasks carried out within your operation or area of responsibility.  Ask yourself if you have controls in place to make sure workers know how to respond to these tasks safely and effectively. If not, consider documenting procedures, adjusting supervision and regularly testing and monitoring effectiveness.  

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