H Factor

Make sure the tool fits the mechanic.


The science of human factors is not a new one. The first meeting of the Human Factors Society was held in the United States in 1957. Back then, human factors practitioners first concerned themselves with the elements of human performance and included at least one psychological component. But for the most part, human factors training stayed under the radar screen for 30 years until the tragic Aloha accident on April 28, 1988.

Those pictures of a convertible B-737 on TV every night for weeks propelled the science of aviation maintenance human factors into the spotlight. So much so that in the last 19 years we have witnessed the birth of many different variations of human factors programs designed to reduce human error. A few of these programs have been successful, many have not.

Please do not misunderstand me. I strongly support human factors training especially for mechanics. I believe that all human factor/safety programs can provide good results in reducing human factor accidents and improving safety in the short term.

However, their long-term success rate is dismal. Too many human factors initiatives fail to last the long term because the safety culture within the organization starts to break down due to combinations of internal and external stressors. Problems arise like key employees and managers leaving, escalating manpower costs, lower profits due to fierce competition, and additional marketplace pressures that nibble at the ankles of the company’s human factors program, until it falls over.

Short-term success

Perhaps the biggest enemy of an in-house human factors program is short-term success. After all, managers believe that they no longer have to worry about accidents any more; they have a safety team in place. Employees think the same. But as I said earlier, in the short term accidents do go down, life is good, and it doesn’t take long for complacency to dig in to the organization like an Alabama tick.

But as time goes by, these negative stressors frustrate empowered safety employees. They slowly lose management and employee support along with resources to improve safety. It’s a losing battle, so it’s no wonder that even the most committed finally give up and the company’s human factors program dies a slow, quiet death; a victim of its own success.

While the failure of a human factors program in an organization is sad, what is worse is how difficult it becomes to sell a brand new company human factors safety program to the employees. The employees see it as another safety program de jour and sing the company song, nod their heads at the appropriate times, but never buy in because they know it will be gone tomorrow. After all they reason, the last program died, so will this one. I think the PhD’s call this a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Market factors aside, I wonder how else can we keep these programs from failing in the long term. After all, the majority of accidents are caused by humans. Accidents cost the company tons of money so why not infuse a safety culture into the company’s organization? However, to infuse anything new into an organization’s chain of command is difficult because changing the culture requires more than just organizational changes. It requires the incorporation of, and commitment to, new ideas. For many this is difficult. Why? Because like the old saw says: all men are afraid of the dark and maintaining the status quo is always the choice of lazy men.

Description of a mechanic

But still the questions remain: “Why do these kinds of programs fail in the long term?” “Why is the intermix between safety and mechanics more difficult than with other groups?” Perhaps one of the most glaring discrepancies I have found doing research for this article is that I could not find a maintenance human factors program that took the time to identify a mechanic. Oh the maintenance tasks were defined, each job-function was locked down, and recordkeeping requirements spelled out.

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