Thursday, 28 January 2016

On the use and abuse of "human factors"

Words shape our world

The words we use, and how we use them, not only allow people to know what we are thinking but also shape the way we think. As a car mechanic, for example, knowing what all the components of an engine are called will make it easier for her to talk to a fellow mechanic and think about what the problem might be and how to fix it.

"Human factors"

In the podcast "Human factors, non-technical skills and professionalism", Liz Chan, a specialist in Veterinary Anaesthesia and Analgesia at the Royal Veterinary College, University of London tells us:
"Human factors were defined by a guy called Martin Bromiley, who set up the Clinical Human Factors Group [CHFG]... He defines them in such an excellent way I always steal his definition because it is, basically to paraphrase: 'Everything that makes us different from predictable machines.'"
Although it is possible that Martin Bromiley used that definition, it is extremely unlikely and, in trying to paraphrase, Liz Chan has changed the meaning of the term "human factors". This means that the podcast listeners are also likely not to use the term appropriately and when they read human factors literature they may wonder how this fits with their definition.

On their website, under "What is human factors?" the CHFG uses the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (CIEHF) definition of:
"Ergonomics (or Human Factors) is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimise human well-being and overall system performance."
An easier definition is provided by Martin Bromiley in a Health Foundation blog.
"I often talk about human factors making it easy to do the right things with reliability of outcome..."
So human factors is a science whose aim is to make it easy for us to do the right thing, and difficult to do the wrong thing.

The abuse of "human factors"

A lack of clarity around the use of the term "human factors" means that when it is used in the press, for example, it is almost always in a pejorative manner. This reinforces the (false) idea that if we could remove the humans from the system then things would be much safer.

In his book, The Human Contribution, James Reason argues that the predominant view of humans in complex systems is as "hazards" when they are often "heroes".

Still one of the predominant examples of the latter view is the "miracle on the Hudson", when Captain Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger landed an Airbus A320 on the Hudson river in New York after both engines had failed due to bird-strike. But we didn't see headlines like this:

We should use the term human factors to refer to the science of ergonomics and avoid using it to mean "human error" (itself a poor choice of words). This will help us and others to have more meaningful discussions and clearer thinking on the causes of, and remedies for, incidents and accidents.

1 comment:

  1. I've listened to this podcast and it's truly awful. What a shame.

    There's not an ounce of it that reflects what I know or understand about effective HF practice or science based. Maybe it's me who's wrong.....