‘Soft’ Skills for Safety: Finding the Right People

‘Soft’ Skills for Safety: Finding the Right People

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Technical skills and qualifications are the first thing employers look for when it comes to individuals meeting their list of job requirements. Various so-called ‘soft skills’ are sought after too, but only secondary to someone’s ability to do the job. But even when this is easily accomplished, things can still go wrong. In safety terms, the majority of incidents occur when critical ‘people’ skills such as effective team working, communication or situation awareness are absent. So, if technical skills can be taught, trained, learned, then why not have the non-technical skills as the essential requirements too, valued for their true worth? After all, most roles involve more than just technical knowledge and ability, often requiring people to work in teams or manage others.

These non-technical skills are described by Rhona Flin (2008) as ‘cognitive and social skills that complement technical skills and contribute to safe and efficient task performance’. They were first acknowledged in the aviation industry after a number of incidents occurred where technical faults were not found to be the cause. Evidence from black boxes revealed that it was the interpersonal interactions that led to disaster, so formal training soon focused on improving this and is now used in many other high-risk sectors, including medicine.

However, investigation after investigation still reveal that human errors such as poor decision making, situation awareness or communication are the root causes. These skills need to be focused on as equally critical for job performance, and therefore training programmes, as technical skills, and maintained at a high level. The oil and gas industry have been increasingly focused on this in recent years to minimise the chances of another Deepwater Horizon. However, there needs to be a way to similarly assess and measure the effectiveness of such training, and it should also be industry and role specific rather than a ‘one size fits all’ approach (Roberts, 2018).

Going one step further, there should also be people within a company prepared and trained in incident investigation, which has these non-technical skills at its core; it simply wouldn’t be effective if they weren’t. People often think that investigation is a technical process. But, just as most incidents are non-technical, an investigation must also be qualitative in nature, and carried out by the right mix of people with the right skills, in order to unveil the human elements at their root. There is, of course, a place for measurement and precise analysis, but planned and thorough investigation is necessary for the deep and true root causes to be found. Investigators must have the right awareness and thinking skills to lead or work together on an investigation, effectively gather evidence, and communicate recommendations.

If employers are looking for people highly skilled in both technical and non-technical skills to improve safety performance, does this and should this go as far as employing people based on certain ‘safer’ or more suitable personality traits? A 2015 study into unsafe behaviours found that agreeableness and conscientiousness are associated with safe behaviours. Personnel already look for other required traits as part of their recruitment process, so adding ‘safe’ traits to this list might make sense if relevant to the role. However, the correlation between conscientiousness and safety behaviour was found to be weak on its own, and other factors in addition to a strong safety culture influence a person’s behaviour (Toppazzini and Weiner, 2017). Yet still, these factors are not enough on their own to create a safe working environment.

It seems that, to balance out the undoubted technical requirements of a role, it is important to look beyond the skills presented to us on paper to identify people with the skills profile the company really needs. Ongoing, high-quality and frequent non-technical skills training is also necessary in order to maintain the safe working standards required in high-risk industries and reduce the likelihood of major incidents. It’s all about people in the end.