EASA explores enhanced human factors training
Travel around the world, or even within a single country, and you’ll find human factors principles applied unevenly in aviation maintenance due, in part, to uncertainties among maintenance leaders and inspectors as to what this field is all about.
“Not everyone understands human factors,” says Simon Roberts, chairman of the European Human Factors Advisory Group and a 15-year veteran of the U.K.’s Civil Aviation Authority, where he currently serves as safety management systems program coordinator. “Some academics give the impression that you need to understand psychology and the science of the mind to get it, but I argue it is just people being people. Human factors is just what we do on a daily basis.”
This lingering confusion about the field was the impetus for the European Aviation Safety Agency ‘s ( EASA ) proposal to develop human factors competencies for the various functions of regulators, beginning with aviation maintenance inspectors, as outlined in its European Aviation Safety Plan 2013-16 and examined last month in this space (AW&ST MRO Edition May 6/13, p. MRO20).
“One of the things I’m trying to do is make sure we don’t overcomplicate what human factors is. I’m trying to bring it down to the realities of life,” says Roberts.
He likens the understanding of human factors to understanding our relationship to speed limits. We all break the speed limit from time to time. The question is: Why are we taking that risk? Are we late? Distracted by our cell phones? Angry? Tired and not paying attention? Human factors is simply about understanding the underlying ‘why’ behind a lapse and, if necessary, putting checks in place to mitigate the risk in the future.
Roberts says he became aware of the knowledge gap through informal discussions with inspectors and via feedback from some maintenance organizations expressing concern about inspectors not probing as deeply as the organizations thought they should. The problem, he explains, is a lack of confidence in the subject matter, which manifests as a tendency to do a surface-level examination rather than asking the right questions.
For instance, a diffident inspector will often look at whether technicians have been trained in this area and equate training with understanding. However, someone with a more in-depth knowledge of human factors would dig deeper and look at whether training is being applied in daily activities. Similarly, they do not simply look at whether errors are being reported, they examine the type of errors reported. Are technicians limiting their reports to things like a printer not working or a third-party provider delaying a part delivery? Or are they reporting safety-related errors, process problems and, importantly, identifying their own mistakes? Does the right culture exist to encourage this kind of error accountability?
“The more competent you are on a subject, the more likely you are to delve deeper into it,” Roberts says. “Regulators need a holistic view so they are not looking only at compliance, but at whether the human factors program is actually delivering.” Although he speaks from a U.K. perspective, the principles are universal.
To bring about that holistic understanding in inspectors and others, Roberts and his team will create a list of key human factors competencies, along with the level of understanding needed for critical areas of these factors. When the competencies are defined, a tailor-made training program can then be designed. The approach is a nod to a broader industry shift toward competency-based training rather than the traditional route, which tends to be measured by topic and training hours.
While the process to define the competencies has not yet started, Roberts says his group agrees that there will be an emphasis on the ability to ask open and meaningful questions. Human factors knowledge will certainly be the foundation, but beyond that, inspectors will need to demonstrate proficiency in their ability to assess the effectiveness of a human factors program in an organization. They must know, for instance, how to talk to mechanics, pilots and others about the sorts of things they feel comfortable reporting to their organization and how long it has been since they last reported something. Inspectors will also be primed to interpret the attitudes and behaviors they observe.
Once the competency framework is defined, EASA will look at applying it to European safety regulations-a move that will improve the overall level of human factors programs throughout Europe, Roberts predicts.
Human factors training “is more than just giving [ inspectors ] better questions to ask; it is understanding the responses and knowing whether and how to challenge those responses to understand whether an organization is really applying human factors ,” Roberts says. “It is knowing where and how deeply to look and how to recognize what ‘good’ looks like.”