SMS Pro Aviation Safety Software Blog 4 Airlines & Airports

5 Things To Know About Aviation SMS Human Factors

Posted by Tyler Britton on Jul 26, 2016 6:00:00 AM

1 - What Are Aviation SMS Human Factors

Aviation-SMS-Human-Factors-Overview.pngHuman Factors in aviation SMS programs identify the motivating factors behind common human behaviors that pose risk.

For example, Fatigue is a common Human Factor that hinders one’s ability to make good decisions, perform common tasks, and identify hazards – all of which pose risk to a program.

When reported safety issues are being managed, management will usually associate the issue with types of hazards, root causes, and if applicable, Human Factors. This data can be quantified and tracked, and over time will provide extremely useful information about behavior in a safety program. Based on this data, aviation safety mangers can make informed decisions for improving the performance of their safety program.

2 - What Are Human Factors Dirty Dozen

Human Factors are characterized by 12 behavioral motivators called "The Dirty Dozen.” We go into each of the 12 motivators in other articles, but a basic overview of them is as follows:

  1. Lack of Communication: poor relay of information because of technology, listening skills, or verbal/non-verbal expression;
  2. Complacency: apathy of duties as a result of over confidence (such as in repetitious work) and lost concern/awareness for risks;
  3. Lack of Knowledge: lack of experience or training needed to safely perform duties;
  4. Distraction: losing focus on current task for a variety of reasons;
  5. Lack of Teamwork: inability for employees to effectively work towards common goals;
  6. Fatigue: emotional or physical lethargy from labor, stress, anxiety, etc., resulting in hampered ability to respond and/or perform duties;
  7. Lack of Resources: failure/inability to have/use appropriate resources (e.g., information, tools, etc.) to complete current task;
  8. Pressure: urgency to hasten completion of task in spite of potential risks;
  9. Lack of Assertiveness: failure to adequately speak up about ideas, concerns, or needs;
  10. Stress: mental or emotional tension or distress due to working conditions;
  11. Lack of Awareness: failure to be alert or vigilant to risks/hazards; and
  12. Norms: the existing culture, accepted practices, or expectations.

The thing to understand about The Dirty Dozen is that, although they are listed as separate motivators behind human behavior, the truth is that they often bleed into each other. For example, complacency can cause lack of awareness or Lack of Assertiveness, Pressure can induce Fatigue and Stress, etc.

3 - Important Human Factors

I’ve written before that certain SMS Human Factors tends to have more repercussions than others in aviation SMS programs. Another way of looking it is that certain Human Factors are often the most indicative of a safety program’s risk management performance and safety culture:

First is #5 Lack of Teamwork because it results in poor interactions, poor Communication, Stress, and Lack of assertiveness. Teamwork is perhaps the most important element of adaptable risk management and quality safety culture.

Second is #8 Pressure because safety programs will often stress performance more in terms of the services that the organization provides than the safety involved in completing tasks. When employees feel obligated to complete tasks within a certain time frame regardless of the risks involved, they will make risky decisions, cut corners (i.e. not follow procedures), and be prone to Fatigue, Distraction (from procedures), and Stress.

Last is #12 Norms because so many programs struggle to create positive norms. Unfortunately, resistance to change is the most common norm in programs, and has an extremely negative effect on aviation SMS implementation. Negative Norms can severely cripple a program’s ability to improve.

4 - Human Factors Mistakes in SMS Programs

There is often an undeniable negative undertone in the discussion of SMS Human Factors. Often they are treated as the “Human Problem” – i.e. human behavior that needs to be fixed. We can see this is the fact that Human Factors are made up of the DIRTY dozen.

When Human Factors in aviation SMS programs are treated as the human problem, the tendency is for the safety program and safety management to:

  • Try and “control” the problem;
  • Focus on rule based, prescriptive methods of monitoring human behavior; and
  • Attempt to limit what could otherwise be healthy human interaction and behaviors.

For example, while I think most safety programs would strive for non-punitive policies, we have worked with many programs that have strict guidelines regarding how employees perform certain actions – guidelines which if deviated from have certain consequences. The aim here is to control a particular Human Factor by preventing behaviors.

The result is that the policy/procedure does not allow employees to address situations with what could be more effective behavior than the prescribed behavior, as they will fear the consequences of performing actions outside of what is prescribed. The benefit of rigid behavioral policies is that safety managers can more easily account for the range of human behavior in their programs.

However this is a kind of shortcut towards a desirable safety culture, as it also limits the ability of a program’s employees to comfortably adapt to specific situations. Training employees to practice highly capable reactive risk management (i.e., adaptable risk management) requires considerable implementation, great leadership, and very positive safety culture – in short, a lot of work.

5 - How to Use Human Factors in Aviation SMS Programs

Instead of extremely rigid policies and procedures regarding human action, Human Factors in safety management systems benefit more from policies that act as behavioral guidelines. Such policies address Human Factors in a way that promotes certain behaviors, but allows for deviation if the situation needs it.

On the surface this seems to invite room for “risky behavior.” However proper reactive risk management training and tools effectively mitigates such risk, and moreover is a more sustainable, positive approach to safety culture and human action.

Approaching risk management with behavioral guideline policies/procedures and reactive risk management training requires accepting that while humans are the unwitting contributors to safety incidents they are also the most important fortification for:

  • Detection;
  • Recovery;
  • Mitigation; and
  • Prevention.

In short, positive safety culture tends to use Human Factors as areas to empower employees rather than a reason to treat employees as a problem. It treats The Dirty Dozen as something to “work up” from, rather than “stay away” from.


Automating training in SMS programs saves aviation service providers considerable time and money. To satisfy the Phase 2 requirement for reactive risk management training, consider automating this SMS training. Here are some useful templates that hopefully offer inspiration.

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Topics: 1-Safety Policy

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