The Human Performance Factor: Recognizing behavior and error-prone situations

By Jim Dollard | Aug 15, 2022
Illustration of a person holding pliers and a wire, surrounded by electric icons. Image by Getty Images / Visual Generation.
NFPA 70E, Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace, exists with NFPA 70, the National Electrical Code, to protect employees from hazards arising from electricity use.




NFPA 70E, Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace, exists with NFPA 70, the National Electrical Code, to protect employees from hazards arising from electricity use.

The NEC provides minimum safety-­driven installation requirements for all workplaces/venues to safeguard people and property. NFPA 70E focuses solely on the workplace and safety-­related work practices, maintenance requirements and other administrative controls necessary to prioritize the safety of employees, not property.

Human performance

The NEC does not contain requirements that address human performance or error, while it is a recurring theme in NFPA 70E. NFPA 70E, Informative Annex Q, Human Performance and Workplace Electrical Safety, discusses the concept of human performance and how it can be applied to electrical safety in the workplace. The objective is to identify and address human error and its negative consequences.

Human performance is a series of behaviors carried out to accomplish specific results and can be viewed as a system composed of many elements working together to produce repeatable outcomes. Human error is not a cause of failure alone; it is the effect of deeper troubles in the system. A common misconception is that somehow, human error is on the employee at the point of failure and is only their responsibility. This is not true. Human performance is an aspect of risk management that addresses organizational, leader and individual performance as factors that either bring about or prevent errors.

It is imperative that all levels in an organization have a basic understanding of human performance. All people at every organizational level are fallible—to err is human. No one is perfect, and even the best employee will make mistakes. No level of experience, age or educational background can entirely eliminate human error. When human performance is addressed, we can identify error-prone situations. They are predictable, manageable and preventable. Think back to the first week in January this year: did you write the wrong year on a document? That is a basic human error.

When an organization truly embraces safety as a core value and develops safety-driven processes and procedures, the impact on individual performance is significantly influenced. This results in employees achieving high levels of safe work practices.

Positive reinforcement

All human behavior (good or bad) can be reinforced. Rewarding or praising the violation of a policy, procedure or other rule to perform a specific task reinforces dangerous behaviors. When owners, managers and fellow employees recognize an individual for following all company policies and procedures and for working safely, however, performance continues to improve.

Positive and immediate reinforcement for expected behaviors (complying with safety policies and procedures) is the best path forward. Reflecting on past incidents provides an opportunity for lessons learned—we can begin to understand why incidents occur and learn from those mistakes to avoid them in the future.

There are multiple safety-driven prescriptive requirements in NFPA 70E, providing specific instructions for employees to follow. These rules are written to help prevent human error. For instance, Section 120.5 addresses the process for establishing and verifying an electrically safe work condition (ESWC). List item (7) includes prescriptive steps to test for the absence of voltage and requires that operation of the test instrument be verified on any known voltage source before and after each test.

Section 130.12 requires that where conductors are de-energized, additional steps to verify absence of voltage must be taken prior to cutting, removing or rerouting them when the conductor terminations are not within sight from the point of work, such as where the conductors are remote from the source of supply in a junction or pull box.

This requirement was submitted as a public input following a fatality. Employees were tasked with cutting and rerouting a feeder that had been placed into an ESWC. There were multiple feeders in the junction box and the employees thought they knew which feeder to cut. No additional steps were taken to positively identify the correct feeder conductors. This is an excellent example of an error-likely situation—it was predictable, manageable and preventable. This requirement is followed by an informational note that provides multiple methods that can be used as an additional step to eliminate human error.

The employers’ electrical safety program is intended to positively affect human performance. It directs employees’ activity appropriate to the risk associated with electrical hazards. It requires that the employer develop and implement an overall risk assessment procedure (affecting human performance) to address employee exposure to electrical hazards.

Header image by Getty Images / Visual Generation.

About The Author

DOLLARD is retired safety coordinator for IBEW Local 98 in Philadelphia. He is a past member of the NEC Correlating Committee, CMP-10, CMP-13, CMP-15, NFPA 90A/B and NFPA 855. Jim continues to serve on NFPA 70E and as a UL Electrical Council member. Reach him at [email protected].


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