Human Factors in Aviation SMS: Beyond the “Dirty”
Unfortunately, the concept of Human Factors in aviation safety management systems (SMS) has historically carried an undeniable, negative impression about the role of human in safety issues (as well as other issues).
Just consider the synonymous term associated with Human Factors: "The Dirty Dozen".
Furthermore, the Dirty Dozen focuses exclusively on the negative aspects of human attitudes and behavior in safety incidents. In other words, in practical application, Human Factors are used as a problem to be controlled. This is increasingly an insufficient representation of human’s role in aviation SMS.
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Without question, human behaviors and attitudes are probably the major driving force in:
- Hazard occurrence;
- Risk occurrence (i.e., adverse events);
- Poor hazard reporting culture; and
- Poor safety culture.
However, humans are also an important barrier for:
- Recovering from risk occurrence;
- Preventing hazard and risk occurrence;
- Mitigating hazard and risk occurrence; and
- Detecting root causes and threats in the environment.
Humans are both the problem and the solution. Keep in mind, here are some advanced uses of Human Factors in Aviation SMS.
Traditional Use of Human Factors Classifications
The best way to advance your use of Human Factors is to begin accounting for positive factors during issue classification. Safety managers classify issues during the risk management process in order to group similar reports together to help detect trends over time.
Trend analysis in aviation SMS is an incredibly important topic. Detecting trends involves reviewing historical performance to predict future events. Trend analysis is a "Safety Assurance" activity and is central in predictive risk management, as managers use trending analytics as a primary tool to apply their risk management strategies.
Related Aviation SMS Predictive Risk Management Articles
- Difference between Reactive, Predictive and Proactive Risk Management in Aviation SMS
- The Truth about What Predictive Risk Management Is
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Classifying Reported Issues by Human Factor
As hazards are identified and issues are reported by employees and other stakeholders, safety managers will qualify and organize them with classifications, such as:
- Type of issue;
- Root causes;
- Associated risk controls; and
- Human Factors.
Organizations that classify Human Factors do so using the negative overtone of the Dirty Dozen, such as the following classifications for the Lack of Teamwork Human Factor.
- Lack of Teamwork
- Strife among employees
- Rude/provocative behavior
- Lack of leadership
- Disrespect team leader’s command
- No clear leader to organize the group
- Lack of clear direction
- Did not understand desired outcome
- Did not understand tasks
- Strife among employees
For a given issue involving a lack of teamwork, a safety manager would use such a classification and associate it with the reported safety issue.
Advanced Use of Human Factor Classifications
However, what about a situation where teamwork positively affected the outcome of the reported issue?
This data can and should be tracked in order to better understand the performance of the SMS. This way, the new classification tree would look like this:
- (... previously listed negative classifications)
- Multiple people worked together to mitigate the issue
- Strong leadership
- Leader quickly re-delegated roles/tasks needed to mitigate issue
- All employees followed the leader’s directions to mitigate the issue
In this way, issues can be positively classified and/or negatively classified. The result is a much better understanding of the complex, multiple ways humans contributed to the issue’s outcome.
In the above example, we use a flexible, configurable classification schema to organize reported safety concerns for future predictive risk management activities. During the management of the newly reported issue, chances are that you are practicing reactive risk management. Your efforts during this reactive risk management phase are preparing the way for you to more easily engage in the provocative, and often elusive predictive risk management phase.
Related Predictive Risk Management Phase Articles
- How Aviation Safety Managers Reach Predictive Analysis Phase
- Going from Reactive to Predictive Risk Management in Aviation SMS
- How to Practice Reactive, Proactive, and Predictive Risk Management in Your Safety Program
Advanced Human Factors Classifications Require SMS Database
If you study the configuration of the human factors classification scheme in the above example, you will immediately recognize that this type of classification is dynamic. It changes over time as new types of issues enter the SMS and safety managers shift their focus to more advanced topics.
Using an advanced human factors classification to easily group safety data requires an SMS database. This is the only sustainable option to use such a powerful predictive risk management tool. We are talking about the human factors classification scheme. This is impossible to pull off well with spreadsheets, even in very small aviation companies.
If you ever wish to routinely participate in predictive risk management activities, you will need an SMS database. If you shop around, you will find an SMS database that already has a default human factors classification schema integrated into the database solution. And to sweeten the deal, your SMS database will probably have very robust predictive risk management tools, like trending charts. Do I need to say any more about the importance of an SMS database if you wish to make it to the predictive phase?
Related Aviation SMS Database Articles
- What Is an Aviation Safety Database
- How to Choose the Best Aviation Safety Database Software
- 3 Things to Know before Buying Aviation SMS Database
Positive Consequences of Advanced Human Factors Classifications
Over time, using advanced Human Factor classifications gives you access to some rather unique data mining abilities through:
- Generating data metrics for human behavior;
- Creating charts for human behavior; and
- Identifying negative and positive trends in behavior.
Just consider a line graph of the top 10 Human Factor classifications over the past year. Ideally, you would see a general rise in positive classifications and a decline in negative classifications.
Or consider a pie chart, where you can see the ratio of positive to negative behaviors that contribute to outcomes.
Considering how important humans are to outcomes, your SMS benefits immensely from understanding human performance.
Human Factors Approach to Aviation Safety
While aviation SMS is traditionally rigidly top-down, there is a good argument to decentralize some of the authority by the Human Factors approach to safety. Very simply, it means relying on humans as the primary risk control to safety incidents.
It’s quite simple. It simply involves:
- Involving employees in the SMS developments and changes more than is traditionally done; and
- Put a heavy focus on the economics of safety, namely providing the right incentives for desired behavior.
Another way of looking at it is giving employees more power and responsibility in order to make top-down-critical processes easier to perform. When employees participate in the SMS, they take ownership of the SMS. This in turn reduces organizational risk and improves safety performance.
Have You Read
- How Employees Should Be Participating in Your SMS
- Why Employees Don't Care about Your Aviation SMS
- 5 Simple Ways to Motivate Employees in Aviation SMS
Final Thought: Understand Management’s Role in Human Factors
Management has several important roles regarding the development, conception, and use of Human Factors:
- Define what Human Factors mean to the SMS;
- Define goals for Human Factors; and
- Identify Human Factors that are observed in practice.
Human Factors have large implications in safety culture. Assessing safety culture is largely a practice of assessing such factors.
Last updated October 2023.