Human factors: Shift handover

Effective communication is important in all organisations when a task and its associated responsibilities are handed over to another person or work team.  This can occur at shift changeover, between shift and day workers, or between different functions of an organisation within a shift eg operations and maintenance. 

Why is handover important?

The goal of handover is the accurate reliable communication of task-relevant information across shift changes or between teams thereby ensuring continuity of safe and effective working.  Effective handover consists of three elements:

  • A period of preparation by out-going personnel;
  • Handover where out-going and in-coming personnel communicate to exchange task-relevant information; and
  • Cross-checking of information by in-coming personnel as they assume responsibility for the task.

Many accidents have occurred because of failure of communication at shift handover, the majority of these involved planned maintenance work. In the 1983 Sellafield Beach Incident, highly radioactive waste liquor was accidentally discharged to sea, due to a failure of communication between shifts. The Cullen Report concluded that one of the many factors that contributed to the Piper Alpha disaster was failure of information transmission at shift handover.

Key principles in handover

To ensure safe handover, organisations should:

  1. Identify higher risk handovers;
  2. develop staff's communication skills;
  3. emphasise the importance of shift handover;
  4. provide procedures for shift handover;
  5. plan for maintenance work to be completed within one shift if possible.

Shift handover should be:

  1. conducted face-to-face;
  2. two-way, with both participants taking joint responsibility;
  3. done using both verbal and written communication;
  4. based on an analysis of the information needs of incoming staff;
  5. given as much time and resource as necessary.  

Improvements should also be made by:

  1. designing support equipment, such as logs and computer displays, with consideration of the operators needs;
  2. involving the end-users when implementing any changes to existing communication methods at shift handover.

More information on safety critical communications

Although several of these documents are about the specific communication issue of achieving an accurate, safe shift handover, many of the principles are relevant to other types of safety-critical communications.

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