To reduce human errors, work must be within human capabilities
Between 100 000 and 125 000 occupational accidents occur each year at Finnish workplaces, the majority of which are believed to be caused by human factors. The SUJUVA project of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health (FIOH) - Better work flow, less errors: Decreasing human errors at work –produced a survey and an occupational accident investigation method that can be used to identify the conditions that may trigger cognitive failures, human errors and occupational accidents. In this way, measures to diminish these can be targeted at the relevant factors. The project results reveal that it is important to reduce time pressure and excessive workload, to manage factors that distract focus and attention, and to support good choices and decisions.
Human error is often blamed when there is no clear reason for an incident, i.e., when devices, systems or the environment are not the cause. Human errors can weaken the flow of work, cause unnecessary delays and economic losses, and in the worst cases, lead to occupational accidents and fatalities.
FIOH’s SUJUVA project determined how work methods and work environments can be designed to promote the safety and smooth flow of work tasks, and to decrease cognitive failures. The study was carried out at workplaces with complicated, constantly changing tasks in fluctuating working conditions; for example, maintenance, construction, logistics, and production work. A total of 1681 employees took part, from four organizations.
”The survey respondents considered working conditions, excessive workload, and disruptions and interruptions at work the main causes of occupational accidents,” says Specialist Researcher Pia Perttula from FIOH. “These same factors were also associated with the prevalence of cognitive failures.”
”As regards working conditions, time pressure and excessive workload in particular, and poor instructions and indiscernible warning signs proved to be the key factors that predisposed employees to cognitive failures,” continued Senior Researcher Simo Salminen, also from FIOH.
Typical backgrounds to occupational accidents
The project examined 47 occupational hazards and accidents using its occupational accident investigation method. It found that the same types of accidents and incidents often reoccur at workplaces, and that previously it has been impossible to affect these. The most typical situations that led to occupational accidents were such in which workers had to focus on several things at the same time, and had to work fast or under time pressure, and during which something had disrupted their perception. Problems connected to the work environment and conflicting goals predisposed workers to occupational accidents. The most typical cognitive failures were difficulties in predicting situations, not noticing dangers or not observing something essential.
The survey data and accident figures showed that factors related to working conditions, especially poor instructions and communication problems, also predicted a company’s number of accidents.
More realistic planning, less human errors
The SUJUVA project enabled us to get to grips with human errors at conventional workplaces in a completely new way, and to find underlying causes that we can concretely tackle. According to the project results, in order to reduce cognitive failures, human errors and occupational accidents, it is important to reduce time pressure and workload, improve instructions and danger warnings, improve communication, and make things easier to notice and perceive.
“Work and the work environment must be planned on a human scale in order to reduce cognitive failures. It is important to identify the reasons behind the errors, so that we focus on the right things,” emphasizes Perttula.
The research was funded by the Finnish Work Environment Fund.
Pia Perttula, Specialist Researcher, +358 30 4742684, pia.perttula[at]ttl.fi
Henriikka Ratilainen, Research Engineer, +358 30 474 2802, henriikka.ratilainen[at]ttl.fi
Simo Salminen, Senior Researcher, +358 30 474 2731, simo.salminen[at]ttl.fi
Virpi Kalakoski, Specialist Researcher virpi.kalakoski[at]ttl.fi
Virpi Kalakoski, Henriikka Ratilainen, Vuokko Puro, Pia Perttula, Simo Salminen, Jani Lukander, Susanna Mattila, Timo Leskinen, Tarja Mäkelä, Pekka Plaketti. Sujuvaa työtä, vähemmän virheitä – Inhimillisten virheiden vähentäminen työpaikoilla (SUJUVA). Työterveyslaitos, Helsinki 2015. (pdf) (Better work flow, less errors: Decreasing human errors at work, the SUJUVA project) (abstract in English)
Specialist Researcher Pia Perttula
Kristiina Kulha, Head of Communications
tel. +358 30 474 2551, +358 40 548 6914,
Tuula Vauhkonen, Information Officer
Tel. +358 30 474 6170, +358 43 824 1203
FIOH researches, develops and specializes in well-being at work, and promotes the health and safety of work and workers’ well-being. It is an independent institution under public law, operating under the administrative branch of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health. FIOH has five regional offices, and its headquarters are in Helsinki. It employs about 700 people.