• 5 Things You Need to Know About Human Factors

    5 Things You Need to Know About Human Factors

    13th June - By Dr R Roberts

If you type human factors into google, you will get approximately 250, 000, 000 responses. The term is frequently used – along with human error – in incident reports, safety literature (e.g. posters, pamphlets, etc.)  and at industry conferences. But with such variation in meanings, definition and uses across different industries, what does it mean?

As an organisation psychologist, I have focussed my academic and industry career around Human Factors. For those who want a concise introduction, I have outlined the top 5 things you need to know about it.

1.    What are human factors?

Human Factors (HFs) refer to the interaction between humans and their environment when completing a task. Factors can relate to the individual, the organisation, the task and the environment. Essentially, it involves the person, what they are being asked to do and where they are working.

These factors can influence behaviour in the work place, which can in turn affect health and safety. HFs involves understanding the strengths and limitations of humans, and how these can introduce errors into occupational safety.

HFs use a range of scientific methods taken from a wide range of disciplines (e.g. psychology, biology, neuroscience) to study human behaviour and performance. Ergonomics are also often placed under the banner of HFs as it relates to the interaction between the human and the system that they work in and designing products, processes and systems that optimise human performance.



2.    Are important for safety

Up to 80% of accidents are the result of human error. This generic statistic is repeated across safety critical industries including aviation, healthcare, nuclear power and the oil and gas industry (See Safety at the Sharp End). Investigations into major accidents identify human factors as root causes. For example, in the oil and gas industry this includes but is not limited to: Piper Alpha, Deepwater Horizon, Montara, Bardolino, and Petrobras P-36 as well as small scale incidents and personal injuries (see Roberts et al., 201; Hopkins, 2012). Consequently, understanding human factors is vital for safe and effective performance.

3.    Recognised across industries

Human factors originated during WWII as a method for keeping pilots alive by looking at the factors that made pilots successful (Wickens et al., 2000). Attention was focused on pilot performance, human limitations, and aircraft design – a combination that could determine the success or failure of a mission. Military and commercial aviation became pioneers of human factors from eth 1950’s onwards, through research into understanding the limitations of human performance and developing methods to support their pilots.

A century on HFs are recognised across safety critical industries as vital for trapping and reducing errors, incidents and accidents. This includes healthcare (referred to as patient safety), maritime, military, nuclear power, mining, rail, and more recently oil and gas. Each industry develops solutions that support their workers with the aim of improving safety and efficiency.

4.     Develop solutions to support the worker

Given that so many industries now recognise the value of HFs, a broad range of tools and solutions have been developed to address these factors at the individual, job and organisation level.

For solutions and interventions to be effective, a holistic approach is required in which all 3 aspects of the situation need to be addressed. Furthermore, tools and solutions they need to be based on empirical evidence, domain specific and thoroughly validated.

Whilst there is a wide spectrum of tools depending on the situation or problem, the commonly known tools and training are outlined below.


5.    Are important for business

Understanding and managing HFs is essential to prevent major accidents, occupational accidents and ill health. If you think safety is expensive, try having an accident. These can cost a business in terms of money, reputation and potentially their continued existence. For example, Deepwater Horizon cost BP an estimated $43B alone, not including more recent fines (Macalister, 2014).

Psychological, ergonomic and organisational factors can influence workers health and safety, but also their efficiency and productivity. For example, if the mental demands of a task are too high (e.g. diagnosing faults or recognising subtle cues), under significant time pressures and with distractions (e.g. interruptions), health issues (e.g. burnout), personal safety and process safety may become an issue. Poor motivation and morale at work may also cause a worker to be less satisfied, less likely to be efficient or speak up if there is a potential problem.


With the increasing sophistication of technology, task complexity, work demand and pressure, understanding HFs is as important as ever. This is particularly relevant in the oil and gas industry with the technological advances, the pressure for efficiency and reductions in staffing. To find out more about HFs, I recommend Safety at the sharp End as an introduction into HFs in safety critical industries. There are also a range of free resources available online.

References & Resources

Flin, R. H., O'Connor, P., & Crichton, M. (2008). Safety at the Sharp End: A Guide to Non-Technical Skills. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing.

Flin, R., Martin, L., Goeters, K. M., Hormann, H. J., Amalberti, R., Valot, C., & Nijhuis, H. (2003). Development of the NOTECHS (non-technical skills) system for assessing pilots' CRM skills. Human Factors and Aerospace Safety, 3, 97-120.

Hopkins, A. (2012). Disastrous Decisions. Sydney : CCH Australia.

IOGP (2014a). Crew Resource Management for Well Operations teams (Report 501). Available from : http://www.ogp.org.uk/publications/wells-committee/wocrm-report/

IOGP (2014b). Guidelines for implementing Well Operations Crew Resource Management training (Report 502). Available from : http://www.iogp.org/pubs/502.pdf

Roberts, R.C., Flin, R., & Cleland, J. (2015b). ‘Everything was fine’: An analysis of the drill crew’s situation awareness on Deepwater Horizon. Journal of Loss Prevention in the Process Industries, 38, 87-100

Wickens, C. D., Hollands, J. G., Banbury, S., & Parasuraman, R. (2015). Engineering psychology & human performance. Psychology Press.


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