How human and organisational performance principles (HOP) improve OHS outcomes

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of the Workplace Health and Safety profession. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Thursday, 27 October, 2022 - 12:45
Industry news
National News

Some safety metrics and targets, unfortunately, have unintended consequences that negatively impact safety improvements, which is leading to frustration in organisations and a drive to challenge existing practices, according to an expert in human and organisational performance principles (HOP).

“I think it’s fair to say that we are all trying to improve our safety. Organisations at any level, from the CEO to the area supervisor, to the frontline worker, do not want to see their people harmed at work,” said Zoë Nation, principal human factors & HOP consultant at HF Integration.

While organisations on a journey to improve safety, Nation said there is a degree of frustration among those who have been diligently doing what they were told to do to keep people safe, such as messaging how important safety is through communication campaigns, linking bonuses to safety performance, introducing more procedures, investigating every injury in detail, and striving for zero harm.

“They are frustrated because their safety management systems have become unwieldy and bureaucratic; their procedures are no longer tools that support the job (they actually get in the way in some cases); their safety performance has plateaued with repeat events and their staff report disengagement and low trust in leadership,” said Nation, who was speaking ahead of the AIHS 2022 WA Safety Symposium, which will be held on 25 November 2022 at Curtin University, Bentley.

In some cases, this frustration is driving organisations to challenge existing practices (“if we keep doing the same thing we will get the same results”) and in other cases, it is unfortunately due to a serious injury or fatality – and she said the need to change is no longer a choice.

“On the whole, we are all early in understanding and aligning with human and organisational performance and the other similar approaches that are inspiring us to evolve our thinking, such as safety differently, new view or safety II,” said Nation.

“There is increasing evidence that a top-down, compliance-based approach to safety is no longer enough for our increasingly interdependent complex systems of work.

“Those organisations that have become more open to listening to their people doing the work and allowing them to solve safety problems at the work front (instead of designing safety in the boardroom) are learning more about the reality of work as done.”

This enables them to better prioritise where to allocate resources, increase engagement and learn about potential incidents before they happen, according to Nation, who said there is some innovative work that is shifting the way failure and success are talked about and measured.

“The good news is that some of the benefits being shared are increased trust and engagement, improved learning and a reduced administrative burden,” she said.

Nation also explained that many of the concepts aligned with HOP are not new in their philosophies, but they are new in the way they are being applied to manage safety in high-risk industries.

“For example, the idea that we should focus on fixing the work (rather than the worker) and build error tolerant systems have been at the core of human factors discipline for decades,” she said.

“But in reality, we have tended to ask for worker behaviours to change. Requests are made: ‘If we could just get people to follow the procedures, if we could just get people to pay more attention, maintain situational awareness, care about their safety more…’ the list goes on. “This is a quicker, more visible and cheaper (upfront) approach than taking time to understand the complexities of the system as a whole with all the interrelating performance shaping factors. This is a daunting task.

“Combine this with how we have rewarded our people to deliver tangible results in short time frames (for example many senior leaders have short two to four-year tenures, so have to show results in this time) – and you can understand why we have chosen off-the-shelf tools and programs that claim to reduce injuries and make our people safer by training them or why we believed adding more rules, procedures and documents would limit the impact of human failure.”
Nation said the biggest challenge is that HOP is not a quick, tangible program (it’s not a program at all) and it has no clear deployment model or end date.

Rather, she explained the process involves humble self-reflective leadership, examination of safety management systems to declutter non-value-adding safety work, worker involvement in the design of the change and letting go of metrics that have been at the core of a business for years.

“It is confronting, uncomfortable, slow and difficult to demonstrate a correlation with safety improvement. Our metrics have measured success as the absence of incidents,” she said.

“This approach challenges us to look for the presence of controls and the capacity to fail. If I ask a group of frontline workers if zero incidents is attainable they will always say no, every time (and I ask this a lot).

“This can be hard to hear but is an important conversation to start having, once we are open to hearing what safety practices are getting in the way, even if we had the best intentions when designing them, we can get on with improving.”

Another common challenge is the confusion around accountability and approaches to discipline.

“When I explain the basic premise behind blame being distracting and not fixing anything, we will generally land on a conversation where people are scared that there will be anarchy, that the approach is a ‘get out jail free card’ and people can shirk their responsibilities and claim they are only human and were set up to fail by everyone else,” she said.

“Applying HOP is not an all-or-nothing, black-and-white approach; it is about finding where you are on the continuum of safety improvement and what steps are appropriate for your own organisation to shift a little (or a lot) further along.”

Legal and HR departments are key stakeholders in this process, in which workers are viewed as the solution and work experts – who need psychological safety in order to speak up without fear of negative consequences – in order to learn and improve without waiting for an incident or near miss.

“It is not about removing the ability to discipline, but about enabling true long-lasting accountability and ownership,” said Nation.

There are a number of steps organisations can take to address these challenges and issues, and Nation said to start by becoming curious about what safety practices and targets are in place for those doing high-risk work.

“Are you confident that you are learning enough? Are you looking at successful work as much as you are examining and measuring failure? Is one of the most common causes of your incidents allocated as ‘person did not follow procedures’?” she asked.

“If so, then this approach can help move beyond this rather unhelpful statement that simply tells us people are not 100 per cent reliable. Be interested and open to learn about new (and well-validated existing) approaches and figure out what might help in your continuous improvement of safety.

“No one is saying you need to throw out all of your procedures, or metrics tomorrow. The plan to adopt some of the thinking will be different for every organisation. Being clear on your values as a company and what outcomes you want will help find the right fit.”

For example, if you have values of trust, innovation, safety or care, Nation said these approaches could help get you closer as they are focused on your people being the solution rather than the problem to fix.

There are a number of important implications in this for OHS professionals, according to Nation, who said a key starting point is to be open to challenge their own training, core beliefs and safety practices.

“Some ideas posed by the HOP principles challenge our well-established safety practices. Just getting our heads around the terms and ideas to understand what we can actually do to operationalise the theories can take some time,” said Nation, who recommended reaching out to those who are having some success as well as researching free information across the resource sectors globally to help get across HOP concepts.
“Once you have a clear idea about what HOP is and is not, then start by going out and doing some operational learning just by asking ‘what’s the most annoying thing about safety in your job’ or ‘what gets in your way when it comes to safety’ or ‘what’s your biggest safety concern’,” she said.

“A day spent in the field asking these questions of those who do the riskiest work will help prioritise what to do first. Then go and micro experiment with one team or one project to prove the concept.”

For example, Nation said to pick a procedure that is a known pain point and work with the end users to simplify and redesign it (give permission to go outside of the current company standards for procedure design), or investigate an event with those involved included as full team members – rather than a closed door activity with formal witness statements and interviews.

“If you create a psychologically safe space, you can learn more about their perspectives and the reality of their work every day than a traditional investigation that aims to elicit one or two root causes. Showing the difference before and after applying these approaches can create a powerful business case,” she said.

“Rather than managing compliance, metrics and paperwork that tend to take us away from interacting with our people, we can focus more on building relationships; fostering trust and learning and improving collaboratively. Ultimately our jobs as OHS professionals could become more rewarding and appreciated.”


Nation will be speaking on “how to adapt and thrive in our approach to safety by aligning with human and operational performance principles (HOP)” at the AIHS 2022 WA Safety Symposium, which will be held on 25 November 2022 at Curtin University, Bentley. For more information call (03) 8336 1995, email or visit the event website.