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26 October 2021

The Passive Fire Industry and the Task Factor: Creating the Work Space

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This is the last article in our three-part series on Human Factors and therefore completing our deep dive into the three elements — the Individual, the Organisation and the Work/Task, with the latter being the focus of this article.

When exploring the Work/Task element, we need to look into design solutions in the work environment, especially in relation to the technology and physical design features.

Work/Task factors include (but are not limited to):

  • Nature of the tasks (complexity, routine/unusual, competing)
  • Workload
  • Time pressure
  • Information quality and availability
  • Clarity of signs, signals, alarms
  • Design of displays and controls
  • Distractions and interruptions
  • Procedures and processes
  • Appropriate tools and equipment
  • Layout of the workplace / project environment
  • Work environment (e.g. noise, lighting, space, ventilation, temperature)

Through health and safety requirements, we are all well trained to be aware of ergonomic principles which take account of both human physical strengths and limitations. At the same time, even though often neglected, considering mental aspects is as important.

These psychological aspects include integrating perceptual, attentional and decision-making requirements. Accordingly, task design should strive to include aspects such as standardising and simplifying processes and procedures, avoiding reliance on memory by introducing checklists, making things visible and decreasing reliance on vigilance, to just name a few.

But in the project environment we encounter, there often is a lack of a strategy to task design, leaving people without guidance, needing them to make hasty, uninformed decisions that ultimately lead to quick fix solutions rather than reliable results.

A sustainable approach to work task design will need to integrate both the physical and the psychological requirements for completing tasks and reliably monitor task completion and work behaviour.

The race to the bottom vs safety in the passive fire industry

Tasks in construction — once thought to be basic — have become quite complicated as a result of the increasing complexity of various factors, for example:

  • Project type, size and location
  • Regulatory requirements
  • Schedules and budgets
  • Technologies

To bring an example, passive fire protection in multi tenancy, high occupancy buildings is routinely being worked on by a series of sub-contractors. But often no one has responsibility for overall quality control. This common scenario shows how the complexity directly increases the chance for human error and, if unattended, can have adverse effects on a larger population.

Hence, to account for the increases in task complexity one would need to allocate more time and resources to provide sound solutions that integrate human factors. But the whole industry is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

On the one hand systems and technologies become ever more complex, impacting on everyone’s work. This combined with working in a high-risk industry like passive fire, means we need to be extra vigilant. It obliges us to allocate extra time and resources to optimise procedures and focus on quality and safety.

On the other hand, we are looking at the race to the bottom. Companies have to deal with a very competitive building environment, which creates an imperative to cut costs and unfortunately often leads to cutting corners. This extends into a lack of professional trade skills due to missing training on all levels, leading to a lack of effective supervision and inspection.

Our question is: Is there a solution to this conundrum?

So where to go from here?

It is our firm belief that omitting to take the time to work in accordance with guidelines set out in the Code of Practice and not integrating human factors into our daily routines, will keep us stuck.

It is the short-term costs of changing work environments, processes and procedures etc. that we often focus on not considering that the long-term costs will by far outweigh any short-term investment.

But we all know that our work environment will most likely only increase in complexity and therefore we have to get a head start on what is coming in the future.

We need to stop and implement change. We need to optimise the context we work in, in order to take more decisions in less time and still provide safe and sound outcomes. We need to invest into upskilling people, optimising work environments and overhauling obsolete company structures.

The potential in this is immense, and if we approach the changes step by step instead of doing it all at once, it is by far less overwhelming. Improving things bit by bit will allow for routines to organically develop and people getting used to doing things differently. It will decrease resistance and anxiety of people losing their jobs and increase their engagement and commitment towards new approaches.

We recommend talking to others about their approaches and ideas.


We hope we were able to show that what really matters is acknowledging human limitations and designing work environments to allow for variability in humans and human performance. It is about creating a motivational context that will allow for values and attitudes to shift and for behaviour to change.

This might mean making changes within all three areas of human factors discussed

  • The individual and their personality, values and culture
  • The organisation, with its management style, culture and goals and
  • The work itself, with its direct environment, the task requirements and processes

The best systems are based on having a skilled workforce, with well-designed jobs that are appropriate to individuals' abilities. They allow for people to comprehend and understand instead of asking people to merely believe in the rules.

The beauty of taking into account Human Factors and improving communication around them is that it will deliver benefits to individuals but will also improve the reliability of systems and processes, and increase the likeliness of compliant behaviour. It will allow the industry to move into the future with the required quality and attitude.

To end with a quote: "You cannot change the human condition, but you can change the conditions under which people work" — Prof. James Reason.

So, let me ask you, what is your chosen way of instilling a lasting change in behaviour?

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