Hawaii’s false missile alarm reminds us safety by design is best

Former editor, IOSH Magazine

In December the residents of the 50th US state were alarmed by SMS messages on their phones saying “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”

A more detailed announcement scrolled across television screens, warning: “If you are indoors, stay indoors. If you are outdoors, seek immediate shelter in a building. Remain indoors well away from windows. If you are driving, pull safely to the side of the road and seek shelter in a building or lay on the floor.”

The alerts were the products of a warning system operated by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HEMA). Mothballed since the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, the system was reinstated last year after North Korea announced it had missiles that could reach the US. (Hawaii is 8,000 km nearer North Korea than the US mainland.)

The December warning caused a panic that lasted 38 minutes until HEMA announced it was a false alarm.

The mistake was traced to one of the authority’s employees selecting the wrong option from a drop-down computer menu that offered either “Test missile alert” – for an internal system check – or “Missile alert”. 

Safety practitioners with an understanding of human factors will see immediately that the interface’s poor design made an eventual false alarm likely. Placing two messages with a single word distinguishing them beside each other with no alert to verify that the operator intended to select the high-consequence option put all the onus on the tester and made no allowance for potential fatigue or distraction.

The principle that the higher up the hierarchy of controls and the further from individual vigilance you can locate protective measures applies to all work, not just to mechanical and electronic control systems.

As APM Terminals safety head Kevin Furniss says in IOSH Magazine's February 2018 leader interview, humans will seek the path of least resistance. So we should design systems and tasks to make that path the safest one.

Furniss also notes that such risk minimisation through simplification reinforces the virtuous relationship between safety and productivity that will endear OSH professionals to operations managers and finance directors.

When the simplest path is not the safest one, employees repeating a task over and again under time pressure will often find the kind of workaround that IOSH’s five-year research programme, published last year, revealed was common in sectors from healthcare to logistics. In most cases workers will use shortcuts that do not put themselves or colleagues in the way of harm, but not always.

Better, surely, for a specialist in risk assessment and control to help design processes at the start, so the easiest way to get the work done is also the least risky.


Louis Wustemann is former editor, IOSH Magazine. He was previously editor of Health and Safety at Work magazine and Environment in Business. He has written, edited and consulted on health and safety, environmental and employment matters for more than 25 years.

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