Human Factors is Never About Humans


Human Factors is Never About Humans

The first rule in reading safety is to understand that words essentially don’t have meaning. Zero never means zero, different doesn’t mean different and ‘human factors’ doesn’t have anything to do with humans. Most of the time when Safety uses words you can rely on it being its opposite. Most often the code simply disguises behaviourism and engineering under another brand, the latest fad being talk about neuroscience (https://safetyrisk.net/what-is-the-human-body-for-in-safety/ ) that has nothing to do with neuroscience. The best way to package behaviourism in safety is to brand it as something else.

The safety industry is one of the best at saying what it doesn’t mean and speaking code to preach its opposite (https://safetyrisk.net/deciphering-safety-code/ ) – ‘lean’ means systems multiply and paperwork increases, ‘learning’ means indoctrination, ‘just culture’ means policing and ‘human factors’ means systems’.

The language of ‘human factors’ emerged out of the aviation industry, concerned with (and I quote):

  • systems performance
  • problems encountered in information presentation, detection, and recognition
  • related action controls
  • workspace arrangement
  • skills required

You can read more about Human factors history here: https://www.hfes.org/about-hfes/hfes-history or here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H36MhK5ADUk.

Human Factors is just a brand for systems, engineering, measurement and behaviourism, just like ‘zero harm’ or ‘human reliability’, just meaningless brands. Just read the material on human factors, there is nothing in there about ethics, personhood, helping, care, understanding, listening, social relationships or the human and Collective Unconscious. Human Factors are silent about all that matters in safety (https://safetyrisk.net/safety-silences-video-series/ ).

I remember receiving this package from CASA in 2009 (Figure 1. The CASA Human Factors Pack), all glossy and ‘schmick’ (must have cost a fortune). I read all this stuff from cover to cover and there is no mention of humans, persons, human judgment and decision making. It’s all about systems, engineering and behaviours, nothing about the persons or decision making, nothing about social influences or culture (called what we do around here – code for behaviourism). There is nothing of importance to the Social Psychology of Risk (SPoR) is in any of this stuff. All this Human Factors material is silent about all of the critical factors associated with being human and tackling risk.

When you read all this stuff it’s just engineering, behaviourism, measurement and systems, nothing new. Just traditional safety packed in glossy material saying nothing different.

Even the cover is a giveaway yes, pictures of people but it’s about ‘error management’ and behaviours. The DVD with the pack is simply terrible, more propaganda than helpful on the nature of persons and risk.

Figure 1. The CASA Human Factors Pack

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Have a look at what ‘human factors’ and ‘human reliability’ discourse ‘preaches’. It’s as simple as a search on the internet and looking at the language on the first 10 websites that pop up. Simply have a look at what is said and most important what is NOT said. Here they are:

  1. https://safetymanagement.eku.edu/blog/understanding-human-factors-in-occupational-safety/
  2. https://www.hse.gov.uk/humanfactors/introduction.htm
  3. https://www.nopsema.gov.au/offshore-industry/safety/human-factors
  4. https://www.arpansa.gov.au/regulation-and-licensing/safety-security-transport/holistic-safety/human-factors
  5. https://www.consultdss.com/human-factors-article/
  6. https://humanfactors101.com/topics/safety-culture/
  7. https://www.cec.health.nsw.gov.au/keep-patients-safe/human-factors
  8. https://academy.systemiq.global/course?courseid=intro-to-human-factors&gclid=EAIaIQobChMIhZnVnq3F9wIVgQ4rCh1ECA7wEAMYASAAEgLSVfD_BwE
  9. https://www.worksafebc.com/en/health-safety/hazards-exposures/ergonomics/human-factors
  10. https://www.assp.org/news-and-articles/2020/10/29/safety-news-you-need-human-factors

Just read this stuff and pretty soon you realize that humans are understood as a ’factor’ in a system. Humans themselves or more importantly, persons who make decisions, are or no importance in any of the stuff. It’s all performance, measurement, behaviours, engineering and systems. If anything, humans are presented as a problem to the system. Just more traditional safety and BBS under a brand. But go further, do a search for ‘human factors under Google images and see what comes up? You guessed it, more systems, more brain-centrism, more system flow charts, more cogs, more process, more swiss cheese, more safety ‘goop’. Nothing about ethical decision making, nothing about relational learning, nothing about social engagement and nothing about all the unconscious factors that influence organizational enactment.

So, get out your code book out on safety ‘goop’ and understand that Human Factors is not about humans but humans as a ‘factor’ in a system.



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