Human factors in context

Human factors is an umbrella term for the study of people’s performance in their work and non-work environments. The term can mean many things to various people and trying to understand all of its implications can be daunting. Perhaps because the term is usually used following human error of some type, we may understand the term to have a negative meaning. However there are two sides to human factors:

  • The downside is our capacity to make mistakes.
  • The upside is our capacity to be flexible and adaptable when solving complex problems and to resolve situations with limited information.

The traditional approach to managing unsafe acts in the workplace has been to adopt a behaviour based safety approach, based on now outdated views including:

  • Workers are the main cause of accidents; and
  • Fix the worker; fix the problem and compliance is the key.

A more contemporary approach is to consider human factors in the context of a given socio-technical system (‘systems that involve a complex interaction between humans, machines and the environmental aspects of the work system’) based on the following premise:

  • Error normalisation principle (errors are normal).
  • Errors are never a root cause to an event.
  • Errors are a combination of individual, environment and organisational factors.
  • The focus of event investigations should always be on improving the system and reducing the opportunities for error.
  • Errors cannot be eliminated but can be managed.

In understanding what human factors is; let us begin with what it is not.

  • It is not just about individual performance.
  • It is not just about common sense.
  • It is not associated with failure or blame.
  • Consideration of human factors in safety management does not minimise individual responsibility, or accountability.

There are many definitions of human factors, however the critical issue to remember is that it’s about understanding human performance capabilities and limitations; and that from an operational perspective, we apply human factors knowledge to optimise the “fit” between people and their system of work, with the aim of enhancing safety and performance. Two definitions appear below:

Human factors is a field of scientific knowledge drawing from established disciplines such as ergonomics, physiology, psychology and engineering. Applying human factors involves optimising the relationship between the human operator and the equipment they operate, their environment, the information and knowledge available to them, and importantly, their interactions with other people.

‘Human factors….is about people in their living and working environments…it is about their relationship with machines and equipment, with procedures, and with the environment about them. It is also about their relationship with other people’.

Captain Frank Hawkins, writing in the 1970’s

A more modern definition:

‘Human factors is concerned with understanding the performance capabilities and limitations of the individual human operator, as well as the collective role of all the people in the system, which contribute to its output

– which therefore includes factors such as organisational culture

Some people refer to the term’s human factors and human error as if they are synonymous, but they are not the same. Human error is really the outcome or consequence of our human performance limitations. Human error is commonly defined as; ‘all the occasions in which a planned sequence of mental or physical activity fails to achieve its intended outcome’ (1)

There are two main dimensions of human factors:

  • The individual, and
  • The system.

The individual dimension is about studying the human performance limitations and capabilities of people within any given system.

A system is:

‘an assemblage of constituents (people and/or hardware and/or software) that interact to fulfil a common purpose transcending the individual purposes of the constituents’.

An example of a system is an effective energy distribution network. This system or network can be made up of many sub-systems such as, live line maintenance, substations, or asset management.

Applied to a sporting context, human factors are concerned with the performance of the individual player; their fitness, health and athletic ability.

Figure 1. The individual player

But what is just as important is the performance of the collective team.


Figure 2. The collective team

The scope of human factors covers many different fields of study from various topics as indicated below.

Figure 3. The many topics encompassing human factors

The contemporary view of human factors today is that people do not live in a vacuum, they are not autonomous; but rather they are components of a system.


Figure 4. People are components of a system

When conducting any type of event investigation, inspection or audit activity, we need to determine two things: Firstly; whether any errors or violations may have involved contributing factors, such as:

  • Poor training,
  • Poorly written procedures,
  • Inadequate documentation,
  • Lack of currency,
  • Poor equipment design,
  • Poor supervision,
  • The organisation’s failure to take action on previous violations,
  • Commercial/management/political pressures to take short cuts.

Secondly, whether the demands of the situation at the time of the occurrence were outside the boundaries of the human performance envelope?

An error tolerant system is one where the results of committing errors are relatively harmless. Despite evident errors, the intended result may still be achieved with either minimal or no corrective action by the user/operator. An example of building error tolerance is the scheduled inspection and maintenance program for electrical transmission line poles. For example, allowing multiple opportunities to identify fatigue cracks, degree of pole sag etc, before they become critical.

Individuals are amazingly error tolerant, even when physically damaged. We are extremely flexible, robust, creative, and skilled at finding explanations and meanings from partial and noisy evidence. The same properties that lead to such robustness and creativity also produce errors. The natural tendency to interpret partial information can cause operators to misinterpret system behaviour in such a plausible way that the misinterpretation can be difficult to discover. Therefore, designing systems that predict and capture error; in other words that contain multiple layers of defences, are more likely to prevent accidents that result from human error.

Want to know more?

For more in depth information about human factors solutions or practical human factors training for your workplace, contact Leading Edge Safety Systems. We are a group of highly qualified and experienced human factors experts, with second to none experience in a range of industries with a proven track record of providing practical solutions to addressing key safety, risk and human factors challenges in the workplace.


Reason, J. (1990). Human error. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Human factors in context

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