Human factors 101

Human factors 101 – factors affecting job performance of military pilots

Cheryl Gordon-Johnson

(Editor’s note: This article is the text of an oral briefing which MSgt Gordon-Johnson presents. Although the tone is humorous, the human factors information is solid, and you’ll note the influence of Dr. Seuss.)

Once upon a time, the world was safe…and all were free of blame. Then someone chomped a forbidden apple. Now, things aren’t the same. People slip on fresh-mopped floors; bash their shins on open file drawers; hit their heads on low-hung doors…and precautions? Too often ignored. Hours grow longer, and the days, shorter; but folks just have to make do. Machinery gets older, and budgets smaller–no surprise we’re black and blue.

More than four decades of studies show what those who work in Safety know to be behind our mishap rates. And sad to say, it’s not too great. So guess what? It’s us. We’re the cause of all the fuss. Poor judgment, channelized attention, task saturation…not to mention while we’re mired in all we do, that sometimes, we’re just dog-tired. Aren’t you? These human factors, as they’re known, chip away at abilities to hone those skills and practices we know to be right, causing common sense to take flight.

Human factors cover more ground than just what’s mentioned above. The gamut spreads far, so I’m just getting started. And you really should know ’em, ‘less you get carted off in an ambulance, torn from those you love. So let’s sit awhile, and maybe just talk. If this works out, you won’t need to squawk 243.0 (1). Instead, be your own hero; and break the mishap chain long before you’re ever in pain. Start with a knowledge of human factors types. That way, you’re sure to cut through the hype.

First, look at environmental factors. Are you in an office, or outside on a tractor? Heat, cold, darkness, smoke and fumes from equipment, driving wind, rain and snow … even noise all conspire against your poise in handling stress, making a mess of your ability to cope. You only hope someone throws you a rope to get you through, since these factors hurt how well you do. Productivity suffers, endurance falls, fatigue creeps in, thought and reflexes slow. In this state, can you handle emergencies? The answer might well be no. And if that’s not enough, things really get tough when these same factors affect equipment or gear.. Parts may break, and with so much at stake, you can’t work through it. You’re thinking, ‘Screw it. I wanna disappear, and go get a beer.” Meanwhile, your boss yells Hey! Who left this here?’

Next are factors self-imposed, the ones we do although we know how bad they really are. We tell ourselves that we’ll get far; already knowing we’re not up to par trudging through our lifestyle tar. A lousy diet hits us hard, sapping strength, endurance and reason. And that increases mishap potential regardless of the season. Skipping meals is dumb indeed, going through the day, a record on the wrong speed. Decision-making and judgment suffer, endangering ourselves and many others. And if folks really knew how impaired we are, they’d avoid us too, if they had their d’ruthers. Fitness is a factor we also neglect. Reclining on the couch, we’d rather select channels on the remote–all the while ignoring the dusty gym tote. Dehydration’s a factor hitting year-round, stabbing at endurance otherwise sound. We lose a third of our potential before we’re ever thirsty (2)… .before we even know it. And on that point, we seldom realize how badly we show it.

More self-imposed factors to consider here are diet pills, supplements, and medications, for when we’re.. .just not ourselves. Self-medicating can mess us up royally. In doing so, we frequently spoil the natural balance of chemicals within, not to mention hormonal blends. Dangers arise when unwitting concoctions react with each other. If so, oh brother! Pray a slap on the back–maybe some ipecac–helps you on your way. And woe be to you, for the price is great, if you fly and self-medicate! It’s not that we’re being a pain in the butt, or trying to keep you in a caffeine rut. Plain and simple, no time to quibble, unauthorized drugs do bad things, whose effects far worsen under wings!

The next couple self-imposed factors have rather potent performance detractors. Smoking, for starters, makes it much harder for oxygen to reach the tissues. Carbon monoxide hogs red blood cells, which in turn sounds warning bells. The pulse speeds up and blood pressure raises, making the day you push up daisies a far bigger issue. Aside from cancer, to make matters worse, you can’t sustain those energy spurts due to the body’s oxygen-starved curse. One more hit against the mission deals with smokers’ loss in night vision of 15-20 percent (3), making a very significant dent. Tobacco chewers don’t fair much better. They too, like smokers, bow to cancer and addiction. And breaking free requires a conviction they may be unable to rouse.

Our final self-imposed factor ranks as America’s drug of choice. Any clues? “Of course, it’s booze!” we proclaim in one great voice. Its effects at the party aren’t our concern here…the clumsiness, judgment errors, lampshade hats and lack of cares. What may be news instead to you, is the grip it holds on all you do two to three days later. Job performance isn’t so hot. You’re making mistakes you’d otherwise not, all because your body caters to the fix you put it in. Poor quality sleep, dehydration, low blood sugar, disorientation, splitting headaches, slow reactions…give it up–you’re not gonna win. Things get risky on the job, so God forbid you drop the ball; and someone sadly ends up having to call your next of kin.

So far we’ve seen two human factors types. Sure, things look gloomy, and you may be thinking “Yipes!” But don’t you worry. Help’s on the way, and what I’m selling will get you through the fray. So where’s the pitch? I’m getting to it. Just hang on–we’re almost through it. All I need’s a few more minutes of your precious time. First, I wanna grab a soda. How ’bout you? Lemon-lime?

Next, we have a category addressing the job itself. Mission-imposed factors come from the top shelf–management, Mount Olympus, the big kahuna, the boss… These sudden demands take many forms, all of which conspire to make you more tired, since they’re out of the norm-fiscal year closeouts, disaster response, equipment failures, pre-inspection measures…even extended holiday hours for your shopping pleasure! Fatigue’s the big danger, not just from long hours. It also hits with changing work shifts, or crossing time zones on TDY trips. One more factor in the workplace is the relative increase in our pace, compensating for lost manning, shrinking budgets, in turn fanning the flames of mishaps caused in our haste.

Our final category lives in our minds, and hurts our perception of danger signs. Psychological factors target attention (4). They bog down our thoughts; not to mention, two lead the way as causal to mishaps. So, let’s look at how thinking gets zapped. First, there’s Distraction, which takes two forms. External examples are buzzers and horns. Internal distraction covers more ground, occupying thoughts with a game downtown or fight with the spouse, where you went round-and-round. Maybe finances have you down, or having to take your hound to the pound. Do the kids’ grades have them in trouble? Does pressure from peers keep ’em in a bubble? Maybe you’re thinking of a second job, or fixing the house, or corn-on-the-cob. Maybe it’s the term paper you haven’t started, or how much that fall on the ice really smarted! In any case, the point is clear–your thoughts are elsewhere, instead of right here.

We’ll look at Negative Transfer next. Defining it from common text, it’s when something’s learned so well, it’s performed on a subconscious level. Is that bad? The task is mastered, and so you revel! But with new equipment, or a different setting, those old habits can have you betting against your life–the results of which could be so sad.

Our last two factors–Channelized Attention and Task Saturation–lead the way in mishap rates and taking victims to the Pearly Gates. They’re number one and two, respectively, so we’ll look at both subjectively. Channelizing has us focused on a single cue; and so intently, we don’t give other cues their due. We don’t notice, for example, the space we have is far from ample as we lurch for a spot in the parking lot, the last to be found anywhere around, and scrape the doors’ paint right down to bare metal. Then the insurance claim, we’ll have to settle. Task Saturation lies at the other extreme, attending to too many cues at once. We then fail to prioritize, leading to bone-headed stunts.

So there you have ’em, all four for you.. the human factors types–environmental, self-imposed, mission-imposed, and those in our minds. What can be done to make us better? What keeps us safe so we don’t take a header? If you’re buying what I’m selling, then I have a deal for you…not so much a new invention, just a salesmanship approach to mishap prevention!

Human Performance Training, HPT, could very well be the key to improving job performance and reducing mishap rates…all for a nominal fee. The price is simply that we shadow you for a while–what’s your name, Bob? Then we develop human factors countermeasures tailored to your job! So run, don’t walk, to your nearest Human Performance Rep. Take advantage of what they offer. That’s the first step. Wouldn’t it be nice being better at what you do? Get the boss off your back? Stop a mishap in its tracks? It might surprise you, ’cause it’s not so hard…and )h, by the way, here’s my card!

(1.) 243.0 MH, the emergency radio frequency for US military aricraft.

(2.) Influence of Hydration Levels, JAMA, 1984

(3.) AFI 11-403, Standard Curriculum, Apr 00, Night Vision Tactics.

(4.) Human Factors in flight, Hawkins, 1987.

COPYRIGHT 2003 U.S. Air Force, Safety Agency

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group