Boost performance by managing brain-centred hazards

Jun 08, 2018

brain centred hazardsRisk assessments typically look for physical and technological hazards that may lead to personal injuries and/or incidents. But what if potential hazards are also housed in the human brain? Such unrecognized brain-centred hazards could explain why so many incidents are attributed to "human error."

These hazards may be exacerbated by critical organizational elements - work environments, technological interfaces, operating procedures, work schedules and even organizational culture - that are not aligned with how the human brain actually works. The consequence: despite their best intentions, organizations may be one misaligned action away from serious injury or public catastrophe.

This was the premise of a session at WSPS' recent Partners in Prevention Conference and Trade Show. David Musgrave, Vice President Brain-Centric Reliability System at Dekra Insight, noted that traditional approaches to safety often focus on a single problem and its solution. They fail to account for broader factors affecting worker performance, such as conflicts among organizational culture, how work is set up and how our brains actually function.

Different systems in our brain compete to control our behaviour. The slow brain, housed primarily in the brain's pre-frontal cortex, operates with conscious cognition, producing analytical, reasoned, reflective and thoughtful actions. Its problem identification, analysis and troubleshooting capabilities are a critical defence against external workplace hazards. However, our actions are directed primarily by the fast brain, which produces automatic, pre-conscious, reactive, habitual and emotion-based actions, and is housed primarily in the limbic system.

Sleep deprivation can also interfere with the thinking, reasoning and troubleshooting capabilities of the slow brain. According to a recent Conference Board of Canada survey, 27% of Canadian workers report being fatigued most days or every day during a typical work week. [1] Again, working conditions may be a factor. The temperature, vibration and repetition of tasks are just three of many workplace factors that contribute to worker fatigue.

3 best practices for managing brain-centred hazards

Since Dekra Insight works with clients to identify brain-centred hazards and develop brain-aligned solutions, WSPS eNews asked David what tips he has for member firms.

  1. Change your cultural messaging. Leaders at every level of the organization influence corporate culture by sending messages that set the tone for how people work. Replace common messages of urgency- get it finished, do it quickly and move on - with messages that build a smarter, safer culture based on thoughtful, precise execution;- take your time, think it through, focus on doing the job right the first time. 
  2. Create brain-aligned standard operating procedures. Performing procedures based on past experience or memory opens the door to human error. To promote error-free actions, provide clear, concise procedures that build on the way our brains work. 
  3. Manage fatigue risks. Sleep deprivation leads to cognitive impairment and severe gaps in performance capability. Implement a fatigue risk management system by providing fatigue training, opportunities for unrestricted sleep, individual fatigue risk assessments, and more.

How we can help

To find out more about how brain-aligned operational and safety defences can reduce exposure to brain-centred hazards, contact WSPS' Teresa Holden, Senior Portfolio Lead,


1 Running on Empty: Understanding Fatigue in the Workplace, The Conference Board of Canada, 42 pages, September 14, 2016