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Human factors: Procedures

Why is good procedure design important?

Procedures, including method statements, work instructions, permits to work etc, are agreed safe ways of doing things. They usually consist of instructions and related information needed to help carry out tasks safely. Procedures may include step-by-step instructions, checklists, decision aids, diagrams, flow-charts and other types of job aids.

Problems with procedures are linked to numerous incidents and frequently cited as one of the causes of major accidents. The inadequate management of procedures have not only contributed to disasters such as Bhopal, Piper Alpha and Clapham Junction, but also to fatalities, personal injuries and ill health.  The main causes are too much reliance placed on procedures to control risk, a failure to follow safe working procedures or the use of inadequate procedures.

Operating procedures may not be the best way of controlling hazards, at least not as the sole defence against human error.

Key principles in procedure design

  • Risk assessment should clearly establish if procedures are an appropriate control measure. The results of the risk assessment should inform development of the procedure.
  • Consider the links between procedures and competency – they are two sides of the same coin and should support each other e.g. on-the-job competency would include training on key procedures. Procedures do not replace competency.
  • Have a system for managing procedures – outlining e.g. how to decide which tasks need procedures, how these are developed, complied with and reviewed/updated. Use task analysis methods to inform the content of procedures e.g. walking and talking through the task with users.
  • Use a format, style and level of detail appropriate to the user, task and consequences of failure.  Fit for purpose – one size does not fit all.  Support compliance with procedures through user involvement and by designing the task, job, environment, equipment, etc.

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