What are the human factors?

By Dr Bill Robb - January 20, 2020

Isn't it revealing that all research starts with a simple question?

The simple question "What are the human factors?" started my MSc research at Cranfield in the School of Aerospace, Transport and Manufacturing in 1997.That question arose because, although there are many papers, articles and talks on "human factors", I could not find out what THE human factors are that human factors specialists study and try to help people overcome. I was not alone in my quest for clarity. I found many statements such as:

  • "Not only do we not know how to implement human factors, most of us don’t even understand what it is."
  • "We all know we need to tackle human factors, but what does it need to look like for our industry… I think everybody is also kind of feeling around in the dark ..."

The fact that some authors use the term "human factors are…" indicates that there is a group of things called "the human factors". So I set out to find out what these human factors could be.

Most researchers will know that several difficulties arise to hinder the research. I found that most authors:

  • Did not define what they meant by human factors.
  • When they did define it, the definitions were meaningless such as "anything that affects a person’s performance" and "human factors is about how people normally behave".
  • Used terms without explaining why they qualified as human factors, such as, "real human factors", "traditional human factors" and "good human factors".
  • Instead of discussing what the human factors are, they went off on a tangent and discussed other things.

As with all research, one has to narrow the scope. I decided to limit my study to the eleven reports on human factors of one professional organisation in the oil and gas industry.

What did I find?

Firstly, people use the term “human factors” to name at least four things:

  • A concept – “taking into account the humans factor is essential for success”.
  • A discipline/study - “I am doing an MSc in human factors”.
  • A practice – “I am a human factors specialist”.
  • A group of things which have the potential to, and do, lead people into errors – lack of awareness, fatigue and complacency.

Secondly, in the various reports I found descriptions of many "things" that can, and do, lead humans into error: state of machinery and equipment, conditions in the physical work environment, conditions in the mental environment (individuals’ attitudes, behaviours, expectations), nature of the actual tasks to be done , accessibility of work systems/procedures and organisational departmental structures/reporting lines, condition of human resources – competence, experience, numbers of people, and the physical and mental state of the frontline operator.

These many things were grouped under headings such as:

  • Human factor issues.
  • Human factor elements.
  • Human factor causes.
  • Performance shaping factors.
  • Human factor skills.
  • Psychological factors.

However, nowhere in the data were there statements such as: "These are the human factors"; or: "This is a human factor".

This led to a third finding and a major surprise. The authors did not know or were not clear about what they regarded THE human factors to be. In other words, my research was unable to answer the research question.

What does a researcher do with a negative result? The answer is: one has to interpret what these negative results mean. On reflection, a fourth finding was that what authors were really getting at were adverse mental states that lead people into making the wrong decisions that lead to the creation of potential-error-conditions.

Defining the human factors

Reflecting on the possible adverse mental states that could lead people into making the wrong choices provided the following preliminary list:

  • Confusion – uncertain about what to do.
  • Lack of concentration – daydreaming, being on "autopilot".
  • Mis-motivation – over-eagerness to please, ambition.
  • Anger – feeling of being badly treated, wanting revenge.
  • Jealousy – feeling inferior, wanting to damage others.
  • Lack of awareness – not seeing, hearing or smelling something is inadequate.
  • Complacency – "we have done this fifty times already", "everyone does it" and "I can get away with it".
  • Not caring – about the rules, about the safety of self and others.
  • Enjoying high risks – the thrill of change, excitement.
  • Being afraid – whether justified or unjustified.

In summary, I suggested that the term "the human factors" should be reserved for the adverse mental states that lead people to create the many conditions that could cause accidents. Clearly, there is ample scope for further research into the mental states that lead people into error.

Thankfully, with a dissertation entitled "AN ATTEMPT TO IDENTIFY 'THE HUMAN FACTORS' IN THE OIL AND GAS INDUSTRY, WITH IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE", I graduated in November 2019. I am grateful to Professor Graham Braithwaite for his supervision, often by telephone and email, and to Dr Jim Nixon for his advice.

"The human factors are the six mental and physical states caused by a combination of conditions which have the potential to, and do, lead people to unintentionally do the wrong things, that is, commit errors."