Human Factors: What do we train? Some ideas

I talk to a lot of people in the aviation industry and right now human factors are a hot topic of conversations and my presentations to industry groups. At the recent Third Annual International Aviation Maintenance Conference, held near Washington, D.C., on Feb. 9-12, 1997, human factors (HF) considerations were discussed in the Maintenance Human Factors workshop and Human Factors panel discussion. However, HF was prominent in every other session including repair station issues, global maintenance practices, standardization issues, surplus/new parts, recordkeeping, and safety data systems.

Those words were written by me and they appeared in the March/April 1997 issue of Ground Effects-Reporting Aviation Maintenance and Ground Error Reduction Efforts. I am still trying to understand what human factors means. With the recent renewed emphasis on HF as a proposed topic for the approved repair station training program, I have set out to reeducate myself. HF should be old hat for those of us who have been in the aviation maintenance business for a long time. What I am finding is that there are many now working in the industry who haven't been exposed to HF training. HF has been around a long time and there is a lot of training information.

In November 1993, I made a presentation at the 8th Meeting on Human Factors in Aviation Maintenance and Inspections. The theme was Trends and Advances in Aviation Maintenance Operations. My presentation was "Environmental Requirements of Maintenance Organizations." The topics discussed in that presentation are still relevant today. I will give a similar presentation to several IA renewal seminars this year.

Aviation maintenance/human factors programs are developed to effect changes. Initially a new program may have been started to reduce human error, decrease cumulative trauma, improve efficiency, or increase awareness. However, in the long run, the program will be successful if it is broad based, is dynamic, and has buy-in by everyone. The HF scope may change and even small changes may require training and some time to completely implement in a large organization. Regardless of the form and emphasis the human factors program takes, the end result should be constant improvement of the entire maintenance system and HF program longevity.

Where to start

A good reference for starting a program might be the FAA Human Factors Guide for Aviation Maintenance. It covers topics like workforce commitment and support, and corporate commitment and support. These topics are then refined with descriptions of the programs, purpose, benefits, and the specific support required. In addition the education elements are identified. The placement of the human factors program in different departments like maintenance, quality assurance/quality control, or other departments depends on the specific organizational culture of the departments. This guide also has a model that might facilitate new program implementation and the placement of an aviation maintenance human factors program in an existing organizational structure.

The challenge we all face is to establish a specification/standard that identifies aviation maintenance human factors program elements and explains the different ways they may interact. The first element is training. Initially the purpose may be awareness. A formal Maintenance Resource Management (MRM) course may be initiated and, as the program matures, very specific training may be needed to address areas of concern.

The second element is maintenance error management. The idea here is to determine how and why maintenance errors occur with the goal of preventing errors in the future. This will require an error reporting and review. The analysis of a specific error and any contributing factors need to be identified so that effective, prevention strategies can be initiated.

The third element is ergonomics. Ergonomics is the applied science with the objective of adapting work or working conditions to enhance worker performance. This approach may bring changes to the workplace. Ergonomic audits will determine if changes in the workplace made an impact on improving efficiency and reducing errors. Issues related to ergonomics require monitoring. The important point is that the three elements are constantly interacting.

Training model

The next challenge is program development and training. A preferred training model is called the instructional system design (ISD) model. But you can use what works for your organization. The ISD model needs assessment and analysis, design phase, prototype, validation, adoption, implementation, trainee evaluation, program measurement, and feedback. Let's look at the issue of feedback. Feedback allows the end product to influence the training program in a constant cycle of evaluation and improvement. The value of feedback is that it be honest and actually influence the program content and implementation. Feedback is a two-way street between the trainers and the trainees. Effective feedback enhances the credibility of any training program.

It follows that a similar approach may be used for the development of an error management program starting with a needs assessment and analysis. The error management program must function in the work environment. Error management program design can be summed up in several questions. Who should oversee and administer the program? How should errors be investigated and results validated? How should error data be analyzed and tracked? How can intervention/prevention strategies be instituted to prevent recurring errors? How can we measure program results?

Ergonomics focus

A large part of human factors focus is ergonomics. Training needs to provide an overview of all the elements of the human factors program then follow on to ergonomics. It provides resources to identify ergonomically based interventions to solve human performance problems. A common approach in the workplace is to say that "human factors" deals directly with social and psychological aspects while "ergonomics" deals with the physical aspects. Human factors considerations are reaction time, sensation, perception, and motivation. Ergonomics deals with issues like posture, lifting, and repetitive motion. A good program focuses on the recognition that humans have physical characteristics that must be considered so they can work effectively. It points out a long list of benefits from applying ergonomics to the workplace. Again there is a needs assessment and analysis. The model can either fit the person to the job or fit the job to the person.

The goals of the ergonomic program could be to reduce errors, injuries, illness, and health problems. The ergonomics program can increase productivity and improve quality. Benefits detail ergonomic interventions based on finding and corrective actions from ergonomic audits.

Sometimes the term "human factors" is considered synonymous with "ergonomics," which has been defined as the science of "fitting the job to the person to enhance human efficiency and well-being." There are specific techniques to be used in fitting the job to the person. The first activity is a systems analysis in which the objective, or end product, of the system is clearly defined. The role of the human as one component within the system also is specified, to the extent feasible, at this point. Once the role of the human has been spelled out in general terms, a task analysis is conducted. The task analysis feeds back into system design in that hardware changes may be necessary at this point to begin to fit the job requirements to the human ergonomically. This same task analysis also becomes the basis for setting goals and the establishment of a human factors training program.

Human capability

The human as a system component has specific capabilities and weaknesses. Humans are incredibly flexible and constitute possibly the best general purpose device ever built. Humans can do almost anything reasonably well. However, the error rate in human performance can be high. An aviation maintenance professional when asked to perform some critical task over and over and do it exactly right every time generally does very well. However, he may have exceeded his capability in terms of reliable performance due to human factors/ergonomics influences over which he has no control. In human factors design terms, this means it is not recommended to design a system in which 100 percent reliability is required of the human operator.

To have a successful HF program we have to know about human capabilities. How is data obtained, interpreted, manipulated, and acted on? The field of anatomy provides information concerning body size, reach characteristics, and other anthropometric qualities. The field of physiology, finally, provides data concerning physiological limitations for energetic and sustained activities.

One characteristic of the human component which separates it from the machine is the manner in which it fails. When seriously overloaded, a machine component will tend to fail suddenly. It will simply break. On the other hand, humans just get tired and begin to disregard things considered less important and concentrate only on the central elements of the task. By so doing, a human can maintain a significant measure of system performance beyond the point where a totally mechanized system will fail. However, overall performance reliability will be impaired during this period because of HF.

Reliability of human performance is a key element to be addressed during a HF analysis. A machine, when working perfectly, generally will exhibit reliability many times better than that of a human. The object, however, is to match the human and the machine components together so that overall system reliability can be improved over what can be achieved independently.

Current technologies can give maintenance workers access to training, technical, and procedural information without a need for tons of paper and can present this information in a more interesting way to those who must use it. Since the benefits seem so obvious, and the training resources are available let's continue to make progress through HF training programs.

Here is the key to a viable HF program: Awareness + Prevention = Compliance. Awareness requires top management support, banners, posters, incentives, ongoing training, trend analysis, HF Awareness Day/Week, HF boards, and continuous improvement. Prevention includes total employee involvement, standardized approaches to error prevention, tool control, hazardous materials control, FOD prevention, scheduled and unscheduled HF training, safety procedures/meetings, equipment and parts accountability, and good housekeeping. Compliance encompasses meeting the industry standard and if applicable military standard, federal, state and local regulations, internal procedures for control, self-audits, spot inspections, correcting problems on the spot, comfortable environment, and zero in-flight and ground incidents. Compliance helps protect the airworthiness and serviceability of aircraft.

Despite the fact that many people are taking the initiative to reduce errors, we can't just rely on the system. Prevention of errors is based on human factors. An organization can prevent errors, which causes aircraft damage, if every one is doing their part. We can't rely on someone else to keep errors at a minimum. It's good professional practice to "give a damn." People contribute to the HF problems and only people can prevent the results. We have to get all the people, and management and the bean-counters to buy in to human factors, with possible associated costs. You are going to have to sell human factors programs, like any other program, on the fact that there is an impact on aircraft airworthiness, serviceability and reliability. We have to "keep 'em flying."

You can learn much more about the topics in this article and read an expanded text by reviewing the Federal Aviation Administration CD titled Human Factors in Aviation Maintenance and Inspection, Thirteen Years of Research and Development, The CD contains human factors training material. AMT