Human Factors Training: Why The Stigma? by Bob Barron

Human Factors Training: Why The Stigma? by Bob Barron

I have been teaching Human Factors (HF) courses for a very long time. And in my more than two decades of training aircraft maintenance personnel both in the United States as well as abroad, a common theme is noticeable — there can be a stigma associated with HF training. Aviation Maintenance Technicians (AMTs) are often put into these classes (sometimes at the last minute) thinking that HF training is “for people who screw up.” And, because of that, many attendees feel that this type of training “doesn’t apply to them.” This attitude can be found in Initial, as well as Recurrent, HF courses. The stigma is certainly understandable. In most cases, course attendees have not been briefed, or given a heads-up, about the real purpose of HF training. So, let’s try to eliminate the stigma and assuage any fears that you are being “sentenced to a class for clutzy mechanics.”

By definition, “Human Factors is a multidisciplinary effort to generate and compile information about human capabilities and limitations and apply that information to equipment, systems, facilities, procedures, jobs, environments, training, staffing and personnel management for safe, comfortable, effective human performance.” (FAA Order 9550.8 Human Factors Policy).

Okay, that’s a good start. The FAA basically wants you to know how different factors can influence you on the job and affect your performance; factors that can cause you to forget things, do wrong things, skip steps, and deviate from procedures. So, yes, the training is there to help you improve your awareness of these factors so that you might think twice about skipping a functional check or not conducting a tool inventory after zipping up an aircraft. Everyone, at every level of the organization, can benefit from HF training. In fact, the error that you do not make (as a result of the HF training) may save hundreds of lives, including your own, or your family’s. HF is certainly not a “class of shame.”

Your instructor knows that you are a consummate professional, not an error-prone employee singled out to serve an HF course sentence. During, and after the course, you will most likely embrace the new attitudes, skills, and knowledge you absorbed. In fact, you may be pleasantly surprised! I’ve had students come into the course with a bad attitude but finish the course with nothing but praise for a “very useful and enjoyable training class.”

In order to get this result, the training needs to be developed using adult learning principles in a facilitative fashion. Too much theory should be avoided. The course should be very interactive and include activities, exercises, and videos (but not too heavy on the videos). Course attendees should know that HF training is a much different experience than any other courses they have sat through before. And when I say “different,” I mean that in the most positive way. It’s all about the soft skills!

But, if the course is so good, why is no one from Management in the class? I’m glad you asked! Well, it’s probably not as much about stigma as it is a general lack of motivation and time management. Managers may believe that they do not need to participate in human factors training because, “We don’t need it, it’s only for mechanics,” “We don’t make mistakes,” or, “We just don’t have the time for this kind of training.” Sound familiar?

Obviously, Managers do make errors. In fact, some of the most vivid aviation accidents have been precipitated by management errors made at the very highest levels of organizations. But even as history repeats itself with bad management decisions leading to accidents, there still appears to be a mindset of “error insulation” for those in management positions (in other words, “it won’t happen to me”). When this type of management attitude permeates an organization, it can have negative consequences. It can negatively affect an organization’s safety culture. Management is not only about making strategic business decisions and watching out for the bottom line—it also serves as a model of safety behavior that is clearly visible to employees at all levels of the organization. Thus, if employees see that Managers are not attending the HF course, then it will certainly diminish the importance of HF training to the AMTs.

Hopefully, this article provided some useful information for those of you who have the HF training stigma and/or fear of the unknown. A well-developed HF course, with an effective facilitator, will be a very good experience for you. And it will also make you a safer employee. Oh, and try to get Management to attend the course. After all, we are all human—and we all make mistakes!