Human factors

What is it?

Human factors is the science of people at work. It is primarily concerned with understanding human capabilities, and then applying this knowledge to the design of equipments, tools, systems, and processes of work. Human factors can use input from many disciplines (e.g. designers, engineers, psychologists, managers) and is considered a mix of engineering and psychology. The field of human factors can be seen to have four main goals: enhancing safety; reducing error; enhancing comfort; and increasing productivity.

Why is it important?

Human factors is important because it helps make work more efficient, effective and safe. Organisations that address human factors will ensure the machines and equipment are easy and safe to use for their workers. Applying human factors allows plant/equipment and procedures to be designed with the user in mind, taking account of human capabilities and limitations so people work in harmony with technology. Not applying human factors may mean equipment or work processes are taxing for employees which can decrease productivity and increase error rates and the risk of injury, illness and accidents. If procedures and instructions are not designed around human capabilities, employees may start to adopt dangerous workarounds to get the job done, which could lead to a greater number of incidents or accidents in the future. Applying human factors aims to get the best out of human capabilities by taking account of their weaknesses and strengths when designing equipment/technology and processes.

Where did it come from?

Time and motion engineers in the final years of the 19th and early 20th century signalled the start of human factors as a science. This includes pioneering work of Frederick Winslow Taylor (who focused on productivity e.g. breaking work into small parts such as production line processes) and Frank and Lillian Gilbreth (finding the best way of doing something e.g. placing bricks closer to bricklayers making it more comfortable). The focus of human factors entered mainstream safety management following the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island (TMI). The President’s Commission into TMI found the causes to be “people-related problems and not equipment problems” (1979, pp. 8). As hardware and software had become increasingly more reliable, the human contribution to accidents (such as TMI) had become ever more apparent. The science of Human Factors, already some 80 years old, entered mainstream safety management, allowing the human element (the human factor)–as well as the technology–to be addressed.

Learn more about the History of safety.

How can I use it in my operations?

An important first step to improve human factors in licence holders' operations is to learn more about it. The Holistic safety guidelines and Sample questions outline key principles for improving human factors–see Characteristic 1.You can also consult useful references.

An important step in applying human factors is gaining a thorough understanding of the work or operation required. Methods such as conducting a work-task analysis, observing work being done or simply talking to the people doing the work are a good ways of understanding the work processes required. Before this is done, it is important to consider a graded approach based on the risks involved. In some cases, a thorough human factors analysis or interventions may not be an efficient or effective distribution of resources. It may be better to spend on other safety interventions given the risks involved. Some questions to ask that can help focus human factors interventions include: is the person selected for the job suitably qualified and experienced?; is the training for the task appropriate or could it be improved? These questions and the more detailed attributes of the Holistic Safety Guidelines and its supplementary Sample Questions can provide further details on how the principles of human factors can be met.