Dr Bill Robb

Based on his recent MSc research at Cranfield University, Dr Bill Robb of Safety Improvers, proposes that human factors applications must become even more effective. 

Human factors is being promoted as “the next safety frontier…”, “a key ingredient of effective health and safety management”, and “necessary for further progress in safety”. However, despite human factors being employed for over 60 years (mostly in the aviation industry) the existence of human factors professional bodies, and academic journals, there are doubts about what the human factors actually are.

For example, one can find statements such as:  

  • “Not only have we not figured out how to implement human factors, most of us don’t even understand what it is…”1  
  •  “We all know we need to tackle human factors, but what does it need to look like for our industry … I think everybody is also kind of feeling around in the dark …”2  
  • “… [the drilling] industry is just beginning to understand and implement human factors.”3 

A major problem with human factors is that definitions are rarely given and when they are they are unhelpful. For example, “Anything that affects a person’s performance” (LMQ 2015), and “Human Factors is about people…” (OGP 2011:1), (Hsieh 2014:86), and “In simple terms, human factors are all those things that enhance or improve human performance in the workplace.”4.

Saying that human factors is about everything tells us nothing about what they are.  

Further confusion is caused by contradictions where some claim that ergonomics and human factors are the same thing and some say it is not. Also, when authors refer to “real human factors”, “traditional human factors” and “good human factors” they do not explain what unreal, non-traditional and bad human factors are.  

A first step in better understanding, is to realise that the term “human factors” is used to name at least four things: 

  1. A concept – Taking into account the human factor is essential for success. 
  2. A discipline/study – I am doing an MSc degree in Human Factors. 
  3. A practice – I am a Human Factors practitioner. 
  4. The things which have the potential to, and do, lead people into errors. 

However, there is still a difficulty. There is no clarity on the things – THE human factors. For example, in their excellent paper trying to explain application of human factors, Aremu and Andrew 5 do not say what the human factors are.  

To satisfy my curiosity and investigate what human factors specialists recognise as some of the human factors, I studied 11 detailed reports on human factors prepared by the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (OGP). The reports discuss “human factor issues”, “human factor elements”, “human factor causes”, “performance shaping factors”, “human factor skills” and “psychological factors”. Within each of these groups long lists of things that can be the cause of errors and incidents are given.

These many things fall into seven groups: 

  • State of machinery and equipment 
  • Conditions in the physical work environment 
  • Conditions in the mental environment (individuals’ attitudes, behaviours, expectations)  
  • Nature of the actual tasks to be done  
  • Accessibility of work systems/procedures and organisational departmental structures/reporting lines  
  • Condition of human resources – competence, experience, numbers of people
  • Mental and physical state of the frontline operator    

Again, however, nowhere in the data were there statements such as, “These are the human factors” or “This is a human factor”. What seems to be accepted is that anything that is wrong and might adversely affect human performance is a “human factor”. This means that things are called “human factors” merely because they were done by or to or affect humans. Again, not much help. 

What’s the solution? 

First recognise the many things in the previous list of seven that could, and sometimes do, lead people into errors and hence incidents, as “potential-error-conditions” (PECs). This step is already recognised by some authors, calling them, “antecedents”, “resident pathogens”, “latent conditions” or “error traps”. So a poorly maintained machine, a bullying supervisor and a very hot environment are not human factors, but rather PECs. PECs can be created by anyone: a managing director, a purchasing manager, a designer, a supervisor or an operator. 

“my research shows that it is certain adverse mental states (AMSs) that cause the reasoning which leads to the wrong safety decision”

Second, recognise that people who do or say things which create PECs do so for a reason. So, we must ask what it is that affects a person’s reasoning such that he/she creates the PEC, or continues to work when confronted by a PEC.  My research shows that it is certain adverse mental states (AMSs) that cause the reasoning which leads to the wrong safety decision. Here are just a few: 

  • Confusion – uncertain about what to do 
  • Lack of concentration – day dreaming, being on “autopilot” 
  • Mis-motivation – over-eagerness to please, ambition 
  • Being afraid – whether justified or unjustified 
  • Anger – feeling of being badly treated, wanting revenge 
  • Not caring – about the rules, about the safety of self and others 

What does this mean for the human factors profession? Helping people reduce human error and any consequent incidents could be more effective if: 

  1. The term “human factors” was reserved for only the discipline and practice. 
  2. Those many things which have the potential to (and do) lead people into error should be referred to as PECs.
  3. Human factors workshops should concentrate on helping people be more aware of when they are being influenced by AMSs and giving them tools to overcome their influence. 
  4. In light of 2 and 3 above, be explicit about the PECs and AMSs we are trying to deal with and avoid the plural “human factors are…” 

There are many advantages for concentrating on the AMSs. For example, it explains why people do not stop unsafe jobs when they are told it is their right and obligation. It explains why it is experienced, competent, well-meaning people who have accidents. AMSs clearly show that operator-error is not the sole error in any incident. Most importantly, it should prevent the ineffective practice of cobbling together so-called “human factors courses” comprising bits of leadership, communication, team work and inter-personal skills. 

To avoid criticism of not giving a definition, here is my attempt after the research.  

Human Factors is the name given to both a discipline and a practice which aim to reduce errors and incidents by studying, and devising training to overcome, the adverse mental states which affect reasoning, which leads to decisions that create potential error conditions or result in continuing with a task when faced with an existing potential error condition.

There is plenty of scope for further research into the AMSs and how to help people overcome them.