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Human Factors Factors

by Dr Rob Long on July 10, 2014 · 19 comments

in Psychology of Safety and Risk,Robert Long

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.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.
  • Sheri Suckling

    FYI – It’s really great to see Jumping Beans physical development programme teaching kids (babies, pre-schoolers, up to 6 years old) risk management fundamentals – it should be mandatory to include this in education system standard curriculum if we really want to get results in workplace safety!

  • Sheri Suckling

    Excellent article! New Zealand is currently working on proposed H&S regulatory reforms, and the key factor missing from most of it is genuine consideration of true human factors and the way human beings are. Simply adding more and more prescriptive requirements is unlikely to have much real impact on human behaviour in the workplace, because it doesn’t address the true root causes. New legislation is being formulated because the existing legislation has failed to produce the desired drop in workplace fatalities and significant injuries, yet the entire framework has never really identified or addressed the root causes of failure in the existing system! They also have yet to realise that threatening employers and company directors with harsher penalties is similarly unlikely to motivate improvements or change behaviours. This is essentially institutionalised regulatory bullying that makes safety compliance seem overly rigid and out of step with practical running of a business. This approach also encourages compliance at the minimum acceptable level according to external standards, rather than from an understanding and commitment to good business leadership practices.

    • Dave Collins

      Hi Sheri – welcome – nice to hear from someone across the ditch who gets this stuff. You nailed it!

      • Sheri Suckling

        It is likewise great to connect with people who get these things at a much higher logical level.

        I can only assume that consideration of human behavioural factors isn’t included because they still have no idea what is involved. It has always struck me as a bit odd that for a discipline that is ostensibly about people and keeping them safe includes so little consideration of human beings and how they work!

        The idea that we can control other human beings is such a persistent and misleading myth – the only person anyone can control is themselves…..and many people have enough trouble with that!

        If we become too obsessed with zero injuries (much like zero defects in quality management), we are really going to stifle learning, and ultimately that makes people LESS safe!

        I’m looking forward to reading more of your work. Thanks so much!

        • Dave Collins

          Yeah dunno why but what you just said reminded me of a conversation I had with a relationship counselor – he said he was amazed at how many people turn up for a session armed with a comprehensive diary or list of all the things their spouse had done wrong – he then points out how predictably boring and robotic a perfect partner would be and how focusing on rather than embracing errors and mistakes is not exactly motivating for human learning and relationships

          • Sheri Suckling

            Hehe….pretty much why I split with my ex! When I was learning to play squash, he would tell me all the things I had done wrong (he was sitting at the back of the court, not playing the game himself!!). One day I turned to him and asked, “Don’t I ever do anything RIGHT?” His reply was revealing: “Doesn’t the fact that I don’t mention it tell you that you got it right?” NO – I need to HEAR it in order for my brain to identify what to focus on!! I often use that story as an example in safety training – too many of our messages focus only on what we DON’T want instead of the desired outcomes, which either aims people at the wrong things or doesn’t provide clarity about what we really want!

          • Dave Collins

            Yeah and I guess that why companies, execs and safety spuds love zero harm – much easier to have don’t do goals and enforce don’t do targets than to have the pressure and worry put back on them as to what should be done and how to do it.

          • Wynand

            Yes, and I suppose a “don’t do” goal is so much easier for a manager since they do not have to design any actions and targets…

          • Dave Collins

            Correct! Still using your excellent quote from a while back mate: “Zero Harm” is a “do not” target. “Do” targets are possible, while “do not” is often impossible.

            Even put it our our famous safety quotes page:

          • Wynand

            Thanks. I am honoured to see my name with such distinguished names.

          • Sheri Suckling

            Awesome page – I’ve bookmarked it for future reference. What a great resource – thank you!

        • Rob Long

          Hi Sheri, I’m over in Auckland in Sept for OHSHIG, if you are there let’s catch up for a coffee.

          • Sheri Suckling

            Hi Rob – I would LOVE to catch up! I will be attending OHSIG and presenting a paper, so it should be easy to arrange to catch up. I look forward to meeting you in person!

  • Rob Long

    A human is not a system, nor an object in a system, nor in deference to a system or secondary to a system. Humans together don’t make a system but rather a community. If we think of humans in a systemic way we remain focused on the system and not humans in social arrangements that are non systemic, messy and ‘wicked’. There is no ‘harmonisation’ of systems but humans in relation.

  • Nimal Malavisuriya

    We together make a system, Then put in individual systems(human) in to it, Human system is ever changing, Harmonizing both system is the challenge. Best way is constant training.

  • Rob Sams

    Dr Rob Long – thanks for the article, so true that far too often we see people as objects.

    I read both of the CASA documents and while the British one does have a whole chapter titled Social Psychology, it doesn’t look like the social psychology I’ve been learning about. A few key terms speckled throughout, but so much missing. I’d be interested in your thoughts on this.

    • Rob Long

      Yes, Rob the CAA document referred to (and the work of Fothergill) is about the edges of social psychology but is much more about human factors ie. an engineering view of humans/ergonomics eg. have a look at the opening ‘framing’ for the chapter on Social Psychology.

      “Aircraft maintenance engineers work within a “system”. As indicated in
      Figure 12, there are various factors within this system that impinge on the
      aircraft maintenance engineer, ranging from his knowledge, skills and abilities
      (discussed in the previous chapter), the environment in which he works (dealt
      with in Chapter 5), to the culture of the organisation for which he works. Even
      beyond the actual company he works for, the regulatory requirements laid down
      for his trade clearly impact on his behaviour. As will be seen in Chapter 8 on
      Human Error, all aspects of this system may contribute towards errors that the
      engineer might make.”

      Then read on and it tries to fit an engineering framework on organizing and the social arrangements of decision making. You are right so much is missing, I would certainly not call this social psychology. It’s just human factors psychology and endorses the idea that humans are factors in a system. Most of what I teach in the Post Graduate program is not in there.

      Even the stuff that is in the chapter doesn’t hold together and lacks an overarching discourse and you are left with a so what? There is no translation into how this affects work and the piece on motivation is simplistic and misguided. Of course Maslow fits nicely into the human factors paradigm but promotes a view of self that contradicts the fundamentals of social psychology. Culture is confused for systems and is anchored in Reason (1997) and segmenting behaviours. The view of leadership is out of sync with social psychology and the chapter ends with the ‘dirty dozen’ and the 6 ‘lacks’ in humans as problems for the system.

      The sources in the chapter are behaviourist (again people as objects) and on human factors – engineering ergonomics. So, clearly out of step with social psychology but uses the title to entice the novice into thinking it is. Those who don’t know the power of framing (obtained from a study of social psychology) would miss all this. This doesn’t mean there are not some helpful things in the chapter but it’s all shaped to an engineering framework with humans as objects in a system.

      Aircraft maintenance engineers work within a “system”. As indicated in
      Figure 12, there are various factors within this system that impinge on the
      aircraft maintenance engineer, ranging from his knowledge, skills and abilities
      (discussed in the previous chapter), the environment in which he works (dealt
      with in Chapter 5), to the culture of the organisation for which he works. Even
      beyond the actual company he works for, the regulatory requirements laid down
      for his trade clearly impact on his behaviour. As will be seen in Chapter 8 on
      Human Error, all aspects of this system may contribute towards errors that the
      engineer might make.

      • Rob Sams

        Thanks for your thoughts Rob.

        Disappointing that the term social psychology seems to be used to try to build credit, yet when upon reading it’s just more stuff about how to control people as part of a system. While I appreciate that this is just a chapter in a book, rather than a full text on social psychology, but you’d think that they would at least focus on some of the key principles (the importance of the unconscious, priming, framing, pitching, visual literacy, decision making to name a few) and not just rebadge human factors.

  • Rob L

    To present some balance to the critique of how CASA ‘sees’ people. I’d like to quote directly from the material.

    “All incidents and accidents result from multiple factors. They do not result simply from just one factor, or one person’s actions. (If this were the case, it would indicate that the system has insufficient safety controls in place). It is clear that major safety problems do not belong exclusively in either the human or technical realm.”

    Dr. Fothergill has a fair bit to do with CASA. Digs the organisational behaviour and social psychology stuff too. CASA sees HF as sometimes being part of the causal link in the chain, but not all sundry. They recognise the realm of social psychology as contributing strongly to their approach.

    The CASA HF course has been strongly influenced by the British CAA. Check-out Chapter 3 of their Human Factors Course – “Social Psychology”.

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