Human System Engineering: Human Factors, Procedures, and Safety Culture.

By: By: Camille Peres, PhD, Texas A&M School of Public Health

Camille, can you begin by telling us about your professional background and your current area of research at Texas A&M?

I have a PhD in Cognitive Psychology and have focused my efforts on Human Factors. Initially, I was looking at human-computer interaction, but I broadened my focus to include the interaction that people have with artefacts and tools at work.

I’ve been working with the energy and high-risk industries for quite some time. Initially, my work was more focused on the office domain and how different software designs may be contributing to injuries, particularly for geoscientists who interpret geological data to identify where hydrocarbons may be. These people were experiencing a lot of ergonomic injuries, which is how I was introduced into this industry.

Following that, I came to Texas A&M School of Public Health and began working more closely with the Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Centre here. I realized that some of the methods and theories that I have developed and used in other domains could really benefit this industry by reducing the likelihood of process incidents. Often, the actual interaction that people have with the machine, tool or procedure wasn’t being sufficiently examined to ensure that it was well-designed to support safe and efficient work. My research has focused on that over the last four or five years and I am now expanding that into how we can support emergency operations and management as well.

Traditionally, human interactions have not been examined as much as risk relating to mechanical failures. Why do you think there is now a growing awareness of the role of human factors in risk management?

Over the last 10-15 years, root cause analyses for incidents involving humans often found human error. The mind-set became how do we fix the human? That’s when a lot of the work around implementing safety culture, making sure that people got enough rest and etcetera became very prevalent. Without question this is needed, but sometimes the problem was not actually with the human; it was with the tools that the human was using. I think as the industry started implementing safety culture or fatigue management, and realized that those weren’t sufficient; they began to question why they were not seeing the expected change in process safety incidents.

That is one of the reasons that people are starting to examine this a little more fully, although it’s certainly nascent. Often, when I talk to people about Human Factors people still think of it as a list of issues associated with humans, as opposed to a scientific discipline that has methods and theories that can actually improve interactions. A colleague of mine refers to it as ‘human systems engineering’ to express that we are trying to engineer that interaction so that there is less likely to be a problem.

Can you provide an example of the practical applications of one of these methods?

One of the methods that we have is ‘contextual inquiry’. This is when you observe the kind of work people are doing while they’re actually doing it. It involves going to the work site, talking to the workers, observing what they’re trying to accomplish and why, and then looking at the artefacts or tools that they are currently using to accomplish that task. The idea with contextual inquiry, while it is very time and resource intensive, is that you can identify the mismatches between how the system is designed and what people are trying to accomplish. An example is a contextual inquiry I did in companies across several countries that revealed many the reasons why people were not using procedures and the reasons we uncovered had not been addressed in official procedural systems.

For instance, it may be that they were expert users who had been doing the job for 30 years but were given procedures that were used to train new people. Those procedures had entirely too much information in them for somebody who already knew how to do the job. In reality, the procedure needed to be adapted for those experienced individuals who just need to be reminded of the risks in this environment and the things that they must ensure are done correctly. These individuals also tended to not use the detailed procedures for more frequent tasks as they essentially had them memorized. That’s one example of a method in human factors with which we can identify variables that people weren’t even considering before.

What is important for companies to bear in mind when designing procedural systems related to risk and safety?

One of the things that we are exploring is how communication surrounding the development, implementation and maintenance of procedural systems may play a role in the articulation and support of the safety culture of a company…

To continue to read this exclusive interview, click here.