Human Factors in Safety

Originally posted on July 10, 2014 @ 10:34 PM

Human Factors Factors

people cogsSomeone sent me an email today with an opportunity to present on ‘human factors’ and risk. Whilst I understand the ‘human factors’ approach I don’t think it understands the social psychology of risk. The term ‘human factors’ has a focus on humans as factors within a system, design or ergonomic framework. Human factors is interested in the ‘fit’ between the human as user, the environment and the task especially the limitations of human cognition and physicality. Whilst it draws on a range of disciplines, the focus is not primarily on humans per see but on human factors as part of ergonomic systems. The emphasis on is engineering, technique and behaviours.

Whilst I have studied ergonomics and understand that humans can be viewed as objects within systems, this is not an approach I find helpful. I don’t find the focus on behaviourism helpful either, nor the idea that safety is about safe behaviours. I don’t find the discourse on violations, unsafe acts, damaging energies, errors (as human blunders), classifications, rule-based behavior and people as factors within a system as helpful. Humans are not ‘objects’ within systems nor some facet of a process, the engineering discourse associated with this understanding of humans doesn’t make sense to me. Nor do I understand ‘human factors’ as a set of skills to be learned so that humans might not ‘stuff up the system’. The prioritization of the system over the human doesn’t help us place systems within culture but rather fosters the confusion of systems for culture.

It is interesting to see how engineering views humans. For example, download the Australian Government Civil Aviation Safety Authority Safety Behaviours Human Factors Resource Guide for Engineers and have a read. The first thing one notices is the emphasis on behaviours, a give away for a mechanistic understanding of humans ( The purpose of the Resource Guide is ‘to provide the best possible fit between people and the systems in which they operate’. The emphasis is on skills as a means to safety. Again, whilst I understand this approach, there is no discussion of social influences on decision making, learning, heuristics, automaticity, the unconscious or many things of interest to a social psychology of risk. The approach has the look and feel of mechanisation, humans as objects and rationalization. The focus is on being ‘let down by non-technical factors, typically human factors’ and why people make ‘mistakes’. The emphasis is on the physical and being organised.

In the ‘dirty dozen’ in the Resource Guide half of the concerns are on ‘human ‘lacks’ rather than how collective mindfulness or organisational sensemaking can be created. This is another ‘give away’ that humans are viewed as impediments to the system. Decision making is portrayed in this approach as a rational, analytical and conscious process, when this is not how humans receive, process information and make decisions. Such a view of decision making may fit an engineering paradigm but doesn’t explain many social psychological ways people make decisions.

The recent mid-air crisis debacle on an Air New Zealand flight NZ176  helps to highlight the difference between a ‘human factors’ engineering approach to risk and a social psychology of risk. The resource guide uses the PEAR (People, Environment, Actions and Resources) model of human factors with an emphasis on skills and behaviours rather than how social arrangements affect decision making. On the Air New Zealand flight the Captain locked out the First Officer ‘in a rage’ and, after seeking entry (knocking) three times, was forced to enter the cockpit from another access. Both the Captain and First Officer were stood down which demonstrates the gravity of the crisis. Commentators have stated that no one should be ever left alone in a cockpit, and such concerns have been intensified since the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines MH370.

My point is this, it is not helpful to view humans as just some part of an engineering schema or as ‘factors’ within a system. Whilst some aspects of the human factors approach (and Resource Guide) are helpful, the general idea that humans are ‘factors’ within a system does not place primacy on humans as social psychological beings, or as any more than the sum of behaviours or, things to be engineered in the workplace. The nature of humans as social psychological beings seems to be missing in this approach and it was clearly missing on NZ 176.

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