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Identifying the difference between active, passive and learning errors

Reducing human error is a daunting task. As a species, we’re incredibly good at discovering new ways to make mistakes. This is especially true with changing technological and social landscapes. To assess all the types of human errors would take an infinite amount of time.

What we can do is look at broader strokes that apply to the different types of human error and map some of the more common thematic elements present in human error investigations. What does human error look like? We don’t have the answer for all of it, but we know its internal infrastructure.

Active error

It’s a pity to mention this first, but it’s very real. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) puts three types of active human error as slips/lapses, mistakes, and violations, all of which are self-explanatory. Active human errors are embodied by errors physically made — accident or purposefully — by groups or individuals. This is the tangible level of human errors.

Passive error

Passive human errors are a bit more amorphous, thus more difficult to identify. Leaning more toward the systems in place by which human beings abide, those systemic flaws that are upstream from active human users play a chief role in human error. By this, it’s feasible to argue that some active human errors are directly correlated with systemic flaws, yet the errors at the end aren’t caused by an active participant. Faulty systems are passive, with potential causality.

Learning errors

Dipping into the realm of learning is tough because everyone learns differently, regardless of the material. Cognitive load errors, for instance, are directly related to the learning process. Once the scope of a subject goes beyond someone’s cognitive capability to effectively grasp it, the result will be learning errors. These, of course, being at the root of all processes, are the basis for errors in the first place. When the learning process is flawed, systems will be flawed, and when systems are flawed, active errors manifest themselves shortly thereafter.

Though just a hairline scratch of the surface of human error, these remain important points to heed and remember. Everything begins with the learning process, which must be effectively implemented and maintained. After that, systems need to have a solid foundation, upon which direct action can be properly executed. Will this squelch anomalies? Of course not. Human beings will never be error-free, but we can always be a little more careful.