11th June, 2020

Why Do People Take Health And Safety Risks At Work?

People don't generally want to get hurt at work, or hurt others. Accidents and ill health are a painful inconvenience after all, and sometimes deadly. But people do unintentionally take health and safety risks that could cause harm. So why do people health and safety risks? And how can we prevent them?

Why Do People Take Health And Safety Risks At Work? header image

When people take risks at work, in health and safety speak, it's referred to as a human failure. A failure to do the right thing, follow instructions, comply with the rules, or otherwise act safely.

It might seem as though if you have all the right procedures in place, and the right systems and controls, that you have removed the risks. But can risk ever be zero? Even the most highly trained and skilled members of your team can make mistakes. You can too. Anyone can. And these mistakes can lead to dangerous situations and serious accidents.

Analysis of accidents and incidents shows that human failure contributes to almost all accidents and exposures to substances hazardous to health. Many major accidents e.g. Texas City, Piper Alpha, Chernobyl, were initiated by human failure.

But these events are not caused by people being reckless or wanting to cause harm. Risks are often taken by people trying to do the right thing, or forgetting to do the right thing, or not knowing what the right thing is.

A human failure can be a lapse, like forgetting to press a button, or a slip, like pressing the wrong button. Or it could be a mistake, like pressing the wrong button but thinking it was the right button. Or a violation, pressing the wrong button on purpose. Of course, human failures don't always involve buttons, but the above examples should help you know the difference between:

These are all ways in which people can take risks at work, but to understand them, we need to know why they happen.


No one intends to slip, and the same goes for human failure slip. You might not be paying attention or be distracted, and pull the wrong lever, turn something up instead of down or read the wrong display. This type of health and safety risk is more likely to happen if a job is very repetitive or familiar. It's human nature to get complacent, particularly if you do the same thing often enough, you stop giving it your full attention.

People don't slip on purpose. And in fact, slips can happen to highly skilled and experienced people. Human failure slips happen because a person is not paying full attention, or they are so used to doing something that its second nature and they stopped double-checking their actions.

Stop slips (or catch them early) with:


Lapses are similar to slips in that the action taken is not intended. But where a slip is usually doing the wrong thing, a lapse is more, forgetting to do the right thing. Like missing a crucial step in a work procedure, or forgetting to put a guard back on a machine before using it, or not checking your mirrors before reversing.

Like slips, lapses can happen to anyone, even those that are highly skilled and motivated.

Stop lapses (or catch them early) with:


As the saying goes, anyone can make mistakes. You might have even categorised slips and lapses as mistakes, but they are different. A slip is taking the wrong action, and lapse is forgetting to take the right action. With a mistake, you are doing the wrong thing, but believing it to be right. You are mistaken.

So why do people make mistakes? Well, there are two types of mistake, rule-based and knowledge-based. A rule-based mistake is when a rule is remembered or applied incorrectly. And a knowledge-based mistake is when a mistake is made trying to handle a new or unusual situation where there are no rules or procedures to follow. For example, operating a new and more powerful machine in the same way as the old one. Or using the same excavation techniques in different ground conditions. Or trying to fix a problem without being trained or experienced to do so. With mistakes, the person isn't trying to take risks, they are trying to do the right thing.

Prevent mistakes by:


Violations are like mistakes in that you are doing the wrong thing, but unlike mistakes, you know you are doing the wrong thing. You are breaking the rules. It might seem like this type of human error is an easy one to blame the person doing it, but there can be many reasons why violations occur, and usually with good intentions. Violations are often done to save time and effort, like taking a shortcut. But this might be because of pressures to meet a deadline or deal with an emergency, or because that's what everyone else is doing.

There are 3 types of violation. A routine violation happens when the breaking of a rule is the normal way of working, and lack of enforcement, e.g. no one is wearing PPE and nothing is done about it. Situational violations happen because job pressure means rules have to broken, for example, time pressures force work to be rushed or the wrong equipment is supplied and must be used to get the job done. Exceptional violations happen in unusual circumstances, for example, they may take a calculated risk when trying to fix something.

Prevent violations by:

Everyone is capable of human failure, and people don't often take health and risks at work with bad intentions. Through growing a positive health and safety culture and environment, human failure and its consequences can be reduced.

Download the free benefits of safety toolbox talk and get the behavioural safety toolbox talk to raise awareness in your workplace.

share on twitter share on facebook share on linked in share by email

This article was written by Emma at HASpod. Emma has over 10 years experience in health and safety and BSc (Hons) Construction Management. She is NEBOSH qualified and Tech IOSH.

Better health and safety...

We are here to help you and your business put safety in everything.

Learn More

Recent posts like this...

The Hidden Cost Of Accidents At Work

In the UK someone is killed at work almost every working day, and hundreds of thousands of workers injured each year. The cost isn't always obvious. Many of the costs are hidden and the direct costs are just the tip of the iceberg. In this post, we will look at the hidden cost of accidents at work.

Read Post

9 Reasons Why Health And Safety Is Important To Business

Is health and safety important? You can bet your life it is. Literally. If you don't take health and safety seriously you are gambling with your life and the lives of others. But we know about the benefits to people, but here are 9 reasons why health and safety is also important for your business.

Read Post

7 Ways Software Can Help You Improve Health And Safety

Software helps us in many aspects of our lives. In the office, computers are getting more powerful each year. Out on site, many of us carry around smartphones and tablets. We're better connected with more online tools to choose from than ever before. Let's use software to improve health and safety.

Read Post

Spend less time on paperwork.
Start with the free plan today.