Human Factors

Several concepts are related to Aviation Human Factors, and it could be interesting to list those before going any further into the impact of Human Factors in aviation:

  • Ergonomics
  • Human Factors
  • Aviation Psychology
  • Human error

Ergonomics or Human Factors?

Ergonomics is an applied discipline whose object is to design better "interfaces" in order to facilitate the interaction between humans and technology, or between humans and the environment. An ergonomic design help improve health and safety. Eg, an ergonomic keyboard helps prevent carpal tunnel syndrome, and an ergonomic chair help correct the sitting posture and prevent muscular strain while sitting.

"Ergonomics" is the concept preferred by Europeans (Australians and New Zealanders). Americans, however, prefer to use the concept of "Human Factors" when referring to the same thing. Yet Americans may also use the concept of "Ergonomics" and "Human Factors" interchangeably.

On the contrary, Europeans use the concept of "Human Factors" more liberally, for referring to any human-related issues that affect operation and performance, including ergonomics, psychological factors (eg fatigue), the social environment (eg CRM, culture), etc. This has had the consequence of making the concept too comprehensive and ambiguous. In fact, you may find that most Europeans actually use the concept of "Ergonomics" for referring to the design discipline only. In this case, "Ergonomics" would be but a particular sub-field of "Human Factors".

Of course, using both concepts has brought about controversy and confusion, albeit rather to the academic world. In fact, ICAO actually uses the concepts of "Human Factors" and "Ergonomics" in a similar way than Europeans do. Therefore, it is more practical to us to use the concept of "ergonomics" when referring to the applied discipline of designing better interfaces, and use the concept of "human factors' more liberally, more akin to that of "psychology".

Human Factors or Aviation Psychology?

Another point of clarification needed is regarding whether the concepts of "Aviation Psychology" and "(Aviation) Human Factors" refer to the same thing or not. There are authors that defend they are one and the same. Indeed, historically, that was the case. Aviation Psychology was probably used as a way of making it clear that people were talking about Human Factors in aviation instead of human factors in other fields. Nowadays, however, it is better to keep them distinct for several reasons:

  • As discussed earlier, Human Factors and Ergonomics share a common field or, at least, are related to each other. Both are an applied discipline that focus on the interaction of humans with their environments, and try to improve such interaction, normally for safety and health purposes. Thus, Human Factors and Ergonomics naturally span several disciplines, and take whatever is necessary for applied rather than theoretical purposes.
  • Psychology, therefore, is one of the disciplines that contribute to Human Factors, but neither the only one nor necessarily the most important of those.
  • Aviation Psychology is, if anything at all, a sub-field of Psychology not a sub-field of Human Factors. Thus, it begs for psychological principles applicable or relevant to aviation, rather than just for ergonomic principles applicable or relevant to it. Therefore, theories, principles and models of little relevance to ergonomics may be of interest to aviation (e.g. whether pilots' personality affect performance or not).
  • Furthermore, Aviation Human Factors have been studied mostly for pilots, air traffic controllers and maintenance personnel. This is reasonable from an ergonomics perspective but not from a psychological one. Firstly, aviation comprises more than pilots, controllers and mechanics. Designers (of aircraft and aerodromes, for example), managers, flight attendants, passengers, etc are also stakeholders in aviation. Ergonomics has very little to do with the latter, but they are relevant objects of study for psychology, indeed.

Human Factors or Human error?

Pilot error, maintenance error, controller error, etc are all cases of human error. However, human error is not all what human factors study. Human error is very visible, indeed. Furthermore, Human Factors and related disciplines (including Psychology) tend to focus more on the limitations of humans than on their capabilites, which tend to raise human error as an all pervaiding "factor" of human performance. However, humans are not just error-prone and limited elements in the system. They also brings capabilities and positive elements. Thus, Human Factors is not all about human error, and comprise more "factors" than just limiting ones.

Six Main Human Factors Topics

1) Human Behaviours: individual acknowledgement of the existence of human factors, which are circumstances that have the potential to affect individual self work performance and simultaneously impact interactive synergy with other individuals, which eventually shapes the overall conduct of safety efforts.

2) Design Ideologies: ordered plan structures, assistance tools and an approved standardised series of operating actions must offer a dependable medium with the human user and, under the relevant situations, provide functions that work safely even when they fail to work according to plan, capabilities to recover from failures caused by human users and shielding against detrimental impacts that cannot be undone.

3) Human Performance Modeling: representation of realistic items, events or situations in a manner made easy for understanding as well as offering similar items, events or situations of the more complicated existent dimension that is easy for comprehension.

4) Organisational and Human Performance: comprehending and knowledge of the manner in which concerns of human factors are affected by their institutional perspectives and context.

5) Human Factors Training: both first-generation and revised tutelage on human behavioural issues are studied for both the managers and the users targeted, as well as recognising the position enacted by supporting utilities in sustaining safety in daily operations.

6) Aeromedical: physiological issues that could affect operational safety.


Want to know more?

AviationKnowledge - ICAO's Human Factors Documents
Here is a list with several ICAO's digests and other documents addressing human factors in aviation.

Contributors to this page

Authors / Editors

Anthony FryerAnthony Fryer



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