Following most major accidents, one phrase is almost guaranteed to headline in the popular press: ‘human error’. The concept is also popular in our own discipline and profession; it is probably among the most profitable in terms of research and consultancy dollars. While seductively simple to the layperson, it comes with a variety of meanings and interpretations with respect to causation and culpability. With its evocative associations, synonyms, and position in our own models, ‘human error’ is a key anchoring object in everyday and specialist narratives. Despite our efforts to look at what lies beneath, explanations, both in industry and the judiciary, often float back what people can see, with hindsight, at the surface. Our scientists’, designers’ and analysts’ perspectives are overpowered by common sense, management and legal perspectives. And the pervasive nature of the term clouds other ways of seeing that recognise the need for adjustments, variability and trade-offs in performance.