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Human factors

Working in human factors psychology

By Peter Renshaw

Before training as a psychologist I was an aeroplane and helicopter pilot. To integrate my flying and psychology backgrounds, I completed a Master's degree in Human Factors, with a 70,000-word dissertation on night vision goggles and helicopter pilot performance.

I have worked as a senior transport safety investigator (aviation) at the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB). The role of a human factors psychologist in this context is to investigate the actions of people and organisations that contributed to an adverse event, and to explain why various defences did not work or why particular risk mitigators were absent. Investigating the human role requires an understanding of perception, decision-making, stress, fatigue, motor control and skill, social and organisational psychology and more. The focus of investigations has shifted from solely looking at the unsafe acts of human operators to a consideration of all elements - for example, how an organisation's training, procedures, and approach to risk management contributes to the performance of a crew when an aircraft overruns a runway during landing.

My day-to-day responsibilities include participating in major aircraft accident investigations, writing reports, and aiding in the development of safety recommendations. Over the last five years, I have investigated more than 80 accidents and 140 incidents in Australia and abroad. We also tend to act as advisers to larger, multi-disciplinary accident investigation teams that may include pilots, engineers, air traffic controllers, survival factors specialists and others.

A typical job might involve interviewing witnesses, examining wreckage, and collating information from sources such as cockpit voice recordings. After the on-site investigation is completed, we spend copious amounts of time reconstructing and analysing the event. My training also helps with the analysis, which includes assessing operational events, local conditions, defence or risk-related conditions and safety actions. That process culminates in a draft report and, after due comment and consideration, a final report is publicly released by the ATSB.

The aim is to minimise the potential for recurrence. Developing sound safety interventions requires extensive research and a good understanding of the hierarchy of risk controls and the relevant human factors literature. One challenge is that human performance investigators often deal with incomplete or controversial information.

The most challenging and rewarding tasks for me have been assisting the Taiwanese Aviation Safety Council (ASC), Taiwan's equivalent of the ATSB. We have various memoranda of understanding with our Asia-Pacific neighbours to provide training and expertise on request, which improves the skills of our investigators should a major airline accident occur in Australia. I have worked closely with the ASC since 1999, including an 18-month investigation of a Boeing 747-400 accident in Taipei in October 2000. Inspired by my experience working with the very gracious and capable Taiwanese people, I am now studying Mandarin at the University of Canberra.

It is extremely rewarding when we identify a solution for existing safety problems. For example, the industry responded positively and rapidly to our recommendations after the Taiwan investigation to introduce electronic taxiway guidance cockpit displays for flight crew and associated airport infrastructure.

I have been fortunate enough to work under the guidance of an outstanding academic and applied researcher in the field of aviation psychology and human factors. In addition, when I first joined the Bureau, the Director at the time was an internationally renowned figure and pioneer in human factors psychology and safety investigation. I would rate my human factors colleagues at the Bureau as world-class safety investigators. One challenge for this area, which we are working on at the ATSB, is the development of human factors investigation methodology. The development of a formal, well-documented methodology is becoming more important as investigators are increasingly scrutinised by a number of public forums, including the Court system.

I would encourage students to consider the lesser-known, more unorthodox fields. Human factors psychology is a relatively small but dynamic field in Australia and there is a need for more graduates and accredited courses, particularly at the postgraduate level. Plenty of opportunities exist in Australia and abroad for those with the appropriate academic training and work experience but unfortunately many students still have a health-centric view of psychology.