Human Factors: what they are and why are important

Human Factors: what they are and why are important

What do Human Factors mean? Why do we prefer the plural form rather than Human Factor? And why do we think that there is less and less need to talk about Human Error, rather than highlighting the processes and organizational elements that lead to errors? We talk about it with our experts Simone Pozzi and Luca Save.


Alphonse Chapanis was the first psychologist to enter a cockpit. During the Second World War, pilots of the Boeing B-17, the U.S. Army Air Forces’ bombers, often made the wrong landing manoeuvre: instead of opening the undercarriage, they operated the ailerons. Chapanis, who was working for the Army Air Force Aero Medical Lab at the time, realised that the problem was in the cockpit: the undercarriage and aileron opening levers were identical and placed next to each other and it was easy to pull one instead of the other in conditions of stress, also in the case of experienced and capable pilots. So he had the idea of putting a thumbwheel at the end of the undercarriage lever and a triangle at the end of the aileron lever, so that even just by touching them the pilots could tell them apart. It worked. 

Chapanis went beyond the type of reasoning that merely tries to establish whose ‘fault’ it is. He realised that human error derived from the design of the control, which was not functional, and that by intervening on this it was possible to prevent this type of accident. The American psychologist is rightly considered one of the ‘fathers’ of Human Factors (HF), a scientific discipline that analyses and improves the interactions between humans and the elements of the system in which they operate, in order to increase human well-being and the performance of the system itself (this is the definition of the International Ergonomics Association). 


Human Factors in the past and in the present: going beyond misunderstanding 

Historically, Human Factors (although they were not yet called like this) originated in industry to make production processes more efficient. Simone Pozzi, CEO of Deep Blue and instructor in Human Factors for EUROCONTROL (Pan-European Aviation Agency) and ESA (European Space Agency), tells us: “When I explain to students in university courses what Human Factors are, I start by talking about Taylor, the engineer who theorised the scientific organisation of work: he changed the way of working by optimising human-machine interaction in order to maximise production. In this way he achieved productivity results that technological innovation alone had failed to achieve.”

The term Human Factors became familiar after the Second World War thanks to the Air Force, which realised that the design of flight instruments had to be pilot-centred, it had to take into account the pilot’s limitations and enhance his or her capabilities. “Before Human Factors, everything that could not be explained as a technical problem, thus calling technology into question, was labelled as human error,” continues Pozzi. “Then it was understood that factors external to the person, for example the layout of the controls inside the cockpit, as indicated by Chapanis, could be the cause of the error and that intervening on these improved pilot performance and prevented many accidents.” In these years, the term Human Factors basically became synonymous with safety, an acronym that in aviation (and transport in general) still prevails. 


Today, those involved in Human Factors are interested in all these aspects, i.e. enhancing work performance and increasing safety and productivity, and also in something more: improving the usability of technological products. Trying to overcome some prejudices and challenge commonplaces. “Human Factors are still greatly misunderstood,” according to Luca Save, an expert in Safety and Human Factors and coordinator of Deep Blue’s consultancy activities in the railway sector. “Often and especially those who use this term in the singular tend to confuse it with the person operating within the system or, at best, with their performance. Usually, those who give the term this meaning use ‘Human factors’ as opposed to the technology in the system to highlight human weaknesses and propensity to make mistakes. Instead, the performance of the individual and that of the system in which he or she operates ‘rests’ on Human Factors, which are a combination of various things: ‘internal’ elements such as individual cognitive capacities, fatigue and stress, the latter also linked to excessive workload, and ‘external’ ones that concern the work context, the workstation or the human-machine interface for example, and the organisation of work i.e. procedures, rules and company policy; we must also add the relationships that a company has with other companies and their obligations with respect to regulatory frameworks or national and supranational regulations.”

Human Factors means everything that is related to the person and the context in which he or she operates and that conditions human performance. Save goes on to say that “Much of the research and consultancy work in HF focuses on the interactions of the individual with the different elements of the system: other people, tools and procedures. The goal is to improve performance and increase safety. It is human to make mistakes, but if we simply dismiss them saying they are ‘man’s fault’, clearly we have little room for manoeuvre: we can either replace the ‘culprit’ or replace him with an intelligent machine, the latter of which entails a series of other problems and does not necessarily solve them. If, on the other hand, we have a complete, articulated view of what Human Factors are, then we discover that there are many elements we can intervene on. Starting with a series of reflections such as: was the procedure unclear? Were the workstations poorly conceived or the human-machine interfaces poorly designed? Was staff training inadequate?” 


What Human Factors experts do

In his book Un colpevole ci dovrà pur essere. I luoghi comuni sugli incidenti e le strategie più efficaci per evitarli (There must be a culprit. The commonplaces about accidents and the most effective strategies to avoid them) (Primiceri Editore, 2019), Luca Save reflects on the importance of integrating Human Factors in safety management starting from the analysis of accidents in air and rail transport and in complex industrial activities, all areas in which Deep Blue carries out its HF research and consulting activities. “In the field of aviation and specifically air traffic control, we often deal with so-called change management: what happens when new tools or working procedures are introduced? What problems arise and what are the repercussions on safety, human performance and therefore the system? These are the questions to be asked, trying to anticipate them when designing tools or drafting procedures, or intervening in ‘post-production’, correcting any errors and problems that emerge following the introduction of an innovation. 

In the railway sector, Deep Blue works with dozens of companies to carry out risk assessment and analysis of accidents and incidents centred on Human Factors. “Companies, including railway companies, have a safety management system, a list of risks that have already occurred or could occur. When the risk is related to human behaviour, however, it is often labelled with a generic ‘negligence’ or ‘human error’. It is important to make people understand that all errors are different, they have different causes and can often be prevented by intervening in the operating conditions,” Save explains, adding that the Commission Regulation (EU) 2018/762 obliges railway companies and infrastructure managers to integrate Human and Organisational Factors into the safety management system. Regarding accident analysis, on the other hand, we typically proceed with identifying whose fault it is. Instead, it is necessary, especially to prevent accidents of the same type from reoccurring, to understand what went wrong. For example, let’s say the driver didn’t respect the speed along a certain stretch of the track: are we sure the speed limit was well signposted? Or, in the case of a procedure that has not been followed: was it clearly written? Did the operator know about it? What needs does it meet? Did it interfere negatively with the timing and mode of the operations?”

Safety management systems require two other activities: performance monitoring, i.e. a constant effort to collect data in order to determine the frequency with which incidents and near misses occur, so as to understand where and how to intervene; and the promotion of a safety culture starting from an analysis of the knowledge and skills of individuals regarding safety issues, not only of frontline operators such as machinists or air traffic controllers but also of top managers, who should never conflate safety and productivity. 

So far we have dealt with Human Factors by linking them specifically to the topic of ‘work design’, understood as a set of tools and procedures, and by extension to that of work performance and safety. But Human Factors are much more: the term also refers to a tool to investigate and understand what the limits of technology are and what its real potential is, and how to design technology truly centred on the needs of those who work with it and use it. Pozzi adds that “In the most future-oriented projects, we use human factors to understand where we want to go, which aspects of human performance we want to preserve and which ones we want to delegate to computers, trying to design new technologies according to human-centred principles.”


The future of Human Factors 

“To those who ask me what the future of Human Factors is, I answer by talking about a pair of glasses.” Pozzi explains: “It has happened to everyone to look for a pair of glasses and then realise we were wearing them all along. The point is precisely this: glasses have become something so ‘taken for granted’ that they have become ‘invisible’. Well, Human Factors are going in this direction: increasingly improving the planning and design of technological tools so as to transform our perception of them from something external to us to something that is part of us, part of our way of life. The difference is an important one: it is between what we perceive as an interface other than us and what we perceive as a tool that is part of the way we think. We will get there, but in the meantime, we are focusing on optimising the interface so that technology may help us to do more. Whichever way you look at it, Human Factors is about human augmentation: it looks at how to increase capabilities, the possibilities human beings have when using new technologies.” 

For this reason, Human Factors will increasingly be about productivity and complexity: given a technological tool, how can we take advantage of it and increase the productivity of those who use it, in constantly changing situations? “The champion chess player Kasparov, who competed with the Deep Blue computer, knew that the game was not taking part between man and computer, a challenge that man could never win, but rather between two pairs of human-computers. The key is collaboration, symbiosis, the new teamwork between man and machine.” A partnership made more difficult by the complexity and dynamism of the information that machines handle and that man is able to take in. “In Taylorism you had a static machine, figuring out how to make worker and machine work well was an engineering challenge, like getting a plug into a socket. Today, artificial intelligence changes constantly because it is constantly learning; on the other hand, the human brain is also super-flexible, ready to store different information very quickly. So the Human Factors challenge is to optimally design a fit between two constantly changing things. When will we achieve this? “I honestly don’t know, but I do know that there is a recurring number in technological revolutions: twenty. Taylorism came twenty years after the Industrial Revolution; the Internet showed its full potential twenty years after its invention. In short, perhaps we should wait a little longer for a truly human-centred technology, but it will certainly be the new generations to achieve this, who have a mentality naturally predisposed to change and now consider technology an integral part of their lives, indeed they expect more and more from new technological tools.”


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