State of science: evolving perspectives on ‘human error’

Gemma J. M. Read*, Steven Shorrock, Guy H. Walker, Paul M. Salmon

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

54 Citations (Scopus)
379 Downloads (Pure)


This paper reviews the key perspectives on human error and analyses the core theories and methods developed and applied over the last 60 years. These theories and methods have sought to improve our understanding of what human error is, and how and why it occurs, to facilitate the prediction of errors and use these insights to support safer work and societal systems. Yet, while this area of Ergonomics and Human Factors (EHF) has been influential and long-standing, the benefits of the ‘human error approach’ to understanding accidents and optimising system performance have been questioned. This state of science review analyses the construct of human error within EHF. It then discusses the key conceptual difficulties the construct faces in an era of systems EHF. Finally, a way forward is proposed to prompt further discussion within the EHF community. Practitioner statement This state-of-science review discusses the evolution of perspectives on human error as well as trends in the theories and methods applied to understand, prevent and mitigate error. It concludes that, although a useful contribution has been made, we must move beyond a focus on an individual error to systems failure to understand and optimise whole systems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1091-1114
Number of pages24
Issue number9
Early online date6 Aug 2021
Publication statusPublished - 2 Sept 2021


  • accident analysis
  • complex systems
  • future of ergonomics
  • Human error
  • systems thinking

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Human Factors and Ergonomics
  • Physical Therapy, Sports Therapy and Rehabilitation


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