‘Safety at the Sharp End’ – skills for high risk work settings

Safety at the Sharp End, by Rhona Flin, Paul O’Connor and Margaret Crichton, describes the basic non-technical skills important for safe and efficient performance in a range of high-risk work settings from industry, health care, military and emergency services.

When things go wrong in high-risk organisations, the consequences can result in damage to humans, equipment and the environment. Analyses in a number of industrial sectors have indicated that up to 80% of accident causes can be attributed to human factors . This means that managers need to understand the human dimension to their operations, especially the behaviour of those working on safety-critical tasks – the ‘sharp end’ of an organisation.

Human error cannot be eliminated, but efforts can be made to minimise, catch and mitigate errors by ensuring that people have appropriate non-technical skills to cope with the risks and demands of their work. Non-technical skills are the cognitive and social skills that complement workers’ technical skills.

Safety at the Sharp End considers the cognitive, social and personal resource skills that complement technical skills, and contribute to safe and efficient task performance. They are not new or mysterious skills but are essentially what the best practitioners do in order to achieve consistently high performance and what the rest of us do ‘on a good day’.

The seven skills discussed in the book are:

  • situation awareness (attention to the work environment)
  • decision-making
  • communication
  • teamwork
  • leadership
  • managing stress
  • coping with fatigue

The skills listed above are required across a range of settings. Much of the background material in Safety at the Sharp End is drawn from the aviation industry but the aim is to demonstrate why these nontechnical skills are critical for many different tasks, from operating a control room on a power plant, to operating on a surgical patient. Human behaviour is remarkably similar across all kinds of workplaces.

About the Authors: Rhona Flin (BSc, PhD Psychology) is Professor of Applied Psychology in the School of Psychology at the University of Aberdeen, UK. She is a Chartered Psychologist, a Fellow of the British Psychological Society and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Paul O’Connor (BSc, MSc, PhD Psychology) has carried out human factors research in a number of high risk industries and the military. Margaret Crichton (MA, MSc, PhD Psychology) is a Chartered Psychologist and founder of People Factor Consultants Ltd. She has published in both academic and industry journals.

Full information about Safety at the Sharp End is available on our website, where you can also read the authors’ introduction to the book.

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