What is the role of human factors in improving aviation safety?
Many personnel are involved in the operation and maintenance of airplanes. The aviation industry employs many people performing many different roles and tasks to keep aviation a safe mode of transportation for goods and services. Despite rules, procedures, and advanced technology to help keep passengers and crew safe, sometimes accidents still occur. It was found that more than 70% of commercial airplane accidents are caused by humans, rather than simply a failure of technology (Higgins & Higgins, 2008). This research supports the thesis that human factors are one of the most difficult, and the most important issues in aviation needed to increase aviation safety in the future.
Mechanical failure is cited as one of the more common reasons for aviation disasters (Higgins & Higgins, 2008). It is easy to shift the blame to a machine, rather than to a human being. It is assumed that most humans would rather not take action to harm other human beings, and if it was found that their actions or inactions had led to the harm of other human beings, that person might feel guilty or experience some form of emotional trauma. However, although this makes human counterparts feel better about an accident and allows them to shift the blame to an inanimate object, the fact remains that they had a role in the accident. Often, behind every mechanical failure is a human who took actions such as overriding safety systems, checking check sheets without actually visually inspecting a system, or skipping steps in safety protocols. When these types of omissions occur, aviation safety is compromised placing passengers and crew at risk.
Humans must interface with technology in order for the technology to be effective. In the past, the industry depended on experience and intuition to guide decisions, but this is no longer the case and technology plays a major role in aiding humans with these decisions (Higgins & Higgins, 2008). Technology cannot operate on its own and Boeing found that improving human capabilities and performance was the key to reducing the commercial aviation accident rate (Higgins & Higgins, 2008).
A surge in new technology to help aid in aviation safety lead to the de-emphasis of the human role. However, even with this new technology, accidents continue to occur. It was soon found that humans and technology needed to work in conjunction with one another in order to resolve many of the safety issues that plagued the aviation industry. Now the human factor is recognized as a key issue and represents a major area of academic and professional research attention. The following summarizes key research in the area of the human factor in aviation safety.
The National Airspace System (NAS) now funds and operates a research laboratory dedicated to researching the human factors in aviation safety. Research focuses on finding the right person-job fit through the development of selection, training, and changes to current technology (Manning, 2007). Research involves job analysis, development of proper psychological and medical assessment, and the development of job performance metrics that will help to detect problems before they occur. According to Manning, the most recent research projects include assessing the validity of air traffic control specialist selection instruments, including applicant temperament and emotional stability. Other research projects include assessing the impact of advanced technologies on air traffic controller performance. The focus of this research is on improving human/technology interaction to increase the safety factors involved with each of these elements.
Simulation devices have been developed that are quite complex and that simulate real world scenarios closely. These facilities are used for both research and training purposes. One example of such facility is the Human Factors Research Division (AAM-500) Simulation Facility. Simulators at this facility include Air Traffic Control Advanced Research Simulators (ATCARS), Mustang Very Light Jet Simulator, Advanced General Aviation Research Simulator (AGARS), Basic General Aviation Research Simulator (BGARS), Vertical General Aviation Research Simulator (VGARS), Head-mounted Display Research System, and the CAMI Unmanned Aircraft Simulation Description (AAM-500, 2010). As one can see there are a number of different simulators available that are designed for specific conditions and technology types. The advantage of simulation devices in both research and training is that it allows research to move beyond theory. It allows the development of real world solutions to problems faced in all areas of the industry. The simulators allow researchers to discover major contributing factors to errors and problems. They also allow them to set up specific conditions and to observe how humans react in these different scenarios. This results in real world solutions to the problems that human face every day in the aviation industry. The simulators are a key tool in helping to reduce aviation accidents caused by human error and they will continue to play an increasing role in the future.
Unlike technology, humans must have certain biological needs met. If these needs are not met, the human will not be able to perform their job as effectively. Fatigue was found to be a major contributing factor to human error in aircraft maintenance. It was found that overworked, overstressed employees pose a significant safety risk through omission or error in the performance of maintenance tasks (Gallaway, 2011). Fatigue was also found to play a significant role in the ability of flight attendants and crew members to perform tasks that were related to the safety and security of national air travel (McCloy, 2010a). The study found that a number of factors can affect fatigue in the flight crew. These include working long hours, on the job stress, sleep interruption, not enough hours to sleep, and disruption of natural circadian rhythms. The study addressed scheduling issues and other ways that airlines can utilize to prevent safety and security issues related to crew member fatigue.
Another factor that was found to affect aviation safety involves the limitations of human sensory and perceptive abilities. For instance, pilots must have excellent eyesight, including excellent color vision. The question arises in potential pilots that have a mild form of color blindness, specifically, how much is enough to equate a safety concern. McCloy (2011a) found that colorblindness and losses in visual acuity were major contributing factors in collisions with trees and other aircraft or objects. This research suggested established limits for what would be considered an acceptable color perceptive level for potential pilots.
Modern aviation requires a complex interaction between human and technological devices. For instance, when a helicopter approaches a hover, instruments must make thousands of calculations and a very short amount of time. However, as the instruments perform these calculations and provide feedback to the human, the human must perceive, process, and integrate all of this information into their own actions. This highly complex process has many points for error to occur. Recent research indicates that the pilot uses many types of perceptual cues, both from the instrumentation and from the environment to approach a hover safely. This research has led to recommendations to alter processes and procedures for when the pilot transitions from forward to hover flight to account for human perceptions and the time it takes to react to this input (McCloy, 2010a).
These are only a small example of the human factors that affect aviation safety. There are undoubtedly other factors to consider, such as sudden illness, or medical conditions that contribute to a human that does not perform do the best of their abilities. It is impossible for a human being to be at their top performance every hour of every day of their lives. There are simply too many factors that affect the performance of the human being. The machine may break, but the human has the ability to recognize that is broken and to take proper measures to on either replace it, fix it, or find an alternative. The same is not true with their own bodies and often they do not recognize the extent of their fatigue or inability to function at their best. Therefore, they perform their job and are apt to make mistakes that can cost the lives of others. Minimizing human error is a key goal of aviation safety and researchers. Now let us examine some of the advances that have been made to help minimize human error as a factor in aviation safety.
New Technology and Recent Research Developments
Many new advances have recently been made to help either enhance, replace, or otherwise aid humans in a performance of complex aviation tasks. One of the most recent is the development of a synthetic vision system (SVS). The system would be integrated into the flight display, this presentation of information will use see-through displays that will allow to the pilot to view data from the plane's sensors and data from the real world at the same time (McCloy, 2011b). This will provide the pilot enhanced visual data, without causing pilot a distraction or the need to look up and take their attention from either the technological or…