Screw Ups: Errors Are Inevitable

 By Phil La Duke


“It’s an imperfect world”, “To err is human”, “That’s why we put erasers on pencils”.  When it comes to screwing up, choose your idiom. We as a global society readily acknowledge that perfection is impossible and yet look with murderous intent to blame those who make mistakes.  This dichotomy isn’t always bad; consider for a moment personal injury lawsuits.  This oft-maligned practice has actually weeded out incompetent doctors, increased the urgency associated with patient safety, and increased awareness of personal responsibility. Even while many politicians deride personal injury lawsuits as single-handedly causing the sky-rocketing cost of healthcare, there are numerous cases where medical advances, improvement in the safety of machinery, and heightened awareness of preventable safety concerns were encouraged by personal injury lawsuits.

Irrespective of your feelings on lawsuits, or even blame, you can probably agree that mistakes cause a significant number of problems, not the least of which, are injuries and workplace deaths.

Before we go much farther, I should define what I see as the categories of behaviors that I would describe under the blanket term, “mistakes”.  Mistakes can run the gamut from simple errors to, misjudgments, risk taking, and catastrophic breakdowns.



Errors are unintentional actions that produce an unwanted result; they are accidents.  Because errors are unintentional we can’t really blame the person who makes them.  That’s not to say that we can’t hold those who make errors accountable.  If your neighbor breaks your window accidentally you may not call the police, but you probably will expect him to cover the repair costs. We generally don’t expect to mete out justice for someone who causes an accident, at least that is, if we categorize it as an honest mistake. Honest mistakes tend to be the mistakes others make that we could see ourselves making.

In his book, Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things In Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are All Well Above Average, Pulitzer prize winning author Joseph T. Hallinan explores the nature of mistake making.  Hallinan’s book is an incredible collection of facts relative to mistake making, and it has profound implications for worker safety. I encourage all safety professionals to read and internalize this work.


One of the key causes of errors, according to Hallinan (and the many studies he cites) is distraction. In today’s increasingly demanding workplaces workers are called upon to do more work with less resources and sadly, more distractions.  According to Hallinan, even a two second distraction can increase the likelihood of an error tenfold.  Multiply that by the multitudes of distractions we have face every day in the course of our workday and the virtual certainty of not just an error, but many errors.  An increasing number of studies have linked texting while driving with highway accidents. But several studies have shown that texting is no more dangerous than dialing a cellphone, entering information into global positioning systems, or referencing written directions.

The Myth Of Multi-Tasking

In addition to distractions, most of us are expected to multitask. Multitasking was a term coined by computer programmers to describe how a computer processes information in tandem to create the illusion of multiple tasks being completed simultaneously.  Unfortunately, it is truly an illusion, computers (except those that contain multiple processors) don’t really do two tasks at once; instead they rapidly switch between the two tasks so quickly that it appears to happen at the same time.  Studies on multitasking have shown that the practice is equally impossible. People who appear to successfully multi-tasks simply have greater short-term memory. Each time a person switches between the two (or more) tasks he or she is completing, the probability of an error increases significantly.

Cognitive Overload

More and more of our jobs require us to keep track of an increasing volume of information.  According to Hallinan, people can only retain and retrieve a fixed amount of information and once that amount of information has been exceeded errors are inevitable and unavoidable. As long we run our operations as lean as we traditionally have, we can expect cognitive overload to lead to poor decision-making, errors and injuries.


Stress directly impedes our ability to make good decisions and increases the probability that we will make mistakes (from misjudgments to errors to catastrophic breakdowns.) One of the most dangerous things about stress is that it can cause cognitive overload by lowering the threshold at which we can retain and act on information.  Stress also reduces our ability to accurately switch between multiple tasks, which makes even the illusion of multi-tasking, impossible.

But beyond it’s obvious effects, stress also increases our subconscious mind’s likelihood of mistake making.  Our brains are designed to see patterns and to resist change.  Biologically speaking, change is stupid and dangerous.  If a species has found an environment ideally suited to it’s continued survival (ample food supply, low predators, good mating prospects, etc.) than any change can lead to disaster and extinction.  Our central nervous systems are hardwired to interpret changes in our environments as potential threats, the adrenal gland releases 37 toxins into our body which effect every major body system.

But resisting change in a dynamic, every changing environment is equally deadly.  Our subconscious minds therefore test the safety of adapting by creating experiments; we act without thinking. Sometimes this unconscious exploration leads to serendipitous discovery and sometimes it gets into trouble; we commit errors.

Errors represent the single greatest threat to worker safety, and what’s more, there is little that can be done to prevent them.  The best we can hope for is to protect workers from their, and other’s, errors.  In next week’s post I will explore another cause of worker injuries: misjudgments.


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