Looking to the Sky for Training and Managing Human Factors in Transportation

Looking to the Sky for Training and Managing Human Factors in Transportation

Most people aren’t aware of human factors or how they can skew their perception of risk.

The transportation industry has a human factors problem. Consider this: From 2005 to 2009, the volume of fatal crashes involving large trucks or buses dropped by a third. At the time, it felt like some progress was finally being made in the number of transportation-relating incidents. But over the following decade, from 2009 to 2018, incidents rose by 47 percent. Perhaps not coincidentally, in 2009, the first Android phone was released to much fanfare, joining the relatively new iPhone in a burgeoning market for distraction-inducing smartphone. 

Transportation’s human factors problem is not just an issue of buzzes and beeps and glowing screens. In 2019, a third of all fatal incidents involving large trucks or buses were caused by what the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration calls “driver-related factors.” (That’s a huge percentage, and you know as well as I do how underreported it likely is; tellingly, vehicle-related factors like blown tires were cited only 5 percent of the time.) Notably, distraction was only the second-biggest cause. Speeding and other forms of rushing were the first, with impairment (which includes fatigue) coming in third place. The top three causes of fatal incidents are all human factors. 

If you work in the transportation sector, you don’t need me—or a bunch of statistics—to tell you that multiple human factors are an issue for the industry. Off the top of your head, you can likely rattle off all sorts of workplace incidents you’ve heard about or witnessed that involve distraction, fatigue or rushing. Not to mention the litany of industry rules and regulations that have been put in place specifically to manage these human factors. 

Speed inhibitors. Mandates on the number of hours truckers can drive in a single day. Anti-distracted driving laws. All of these are intended to protect professional drivers from their own human error. And how are all these measures faring in managing tiredness in the transportation industry? Look no further than the statistics that I mentioned a few paragraphs ago. Like I said, the industry has a human factors problem. 

Or more specifically, a human factors management problem. Because error-causing states aren’t unique to the transportation industry, but they can be uniquely dangerous for folks who spend hours and hours moving people and good across the country. And the current solutions clearly aren’t working. 

The problem with managing human factors with rules is that it assumes people are aware of the increased risk human factors pose and are consciously choosing to operate that way. But most people aren’t even aware of human factors or how they can skew their perception of risk. You can’t blame them for something they’re not even aware of. Which is why the industry needs to focus less on regulating humans, and more on managing human factors. 

Fatigue and rushing are two of the most prevalent human factors for truckers and similar categories of workers. They’re also among most common physical and mental states that affect workplace risk, along with frustration and complacency. Think of them as the four horsemen of human factors that cause havoc whenever they’re allowed to gallop down the road or through the workplace. But there are plenty of others too: ambiguity, poor communication, overconfidence, distraction. 

I’ve been studying human factors for almost two decades. I’ve read countless reports, commissioned surveys, and my colleagues and I have even conducted our own primary research. One of the things I’ve learned is that human factors are like mice—there’s never just one or two. As any homeowner knows, if you see one mouse scurrying out in the open, there’s bound to be whole nest of them somewhere in the walls. So, when human factors are topping the list of fatal transportation incidents, there’s clearly a problem. 

Not everything is doom and gloom, however, and the transportation industry is ahead of the curve in some ways. The logbooks, rules about continuous driving and regulations that govern driver behavior are all tacit admissions that fatigue is a fact of life for drivers. Ditto with constant reminders to keep cell phones out of sight while driving.  

When transport operators are trained on fatigue-related rules or given a memo on the dangers of speeding or distraction, they’re already being trained on human factors. The training just isn’t particularly effective, because the terms are dictated by a bunch of one-size-fits-all rules instead of being managed by a driver who’s been educated about a bunch of practical solutions. 

Human factors don’t work like a stoplight. When a vehicle approaches an intersection and the traffic light turns red, that provides a discrete signal that the driver needs to make a decision—what are the rules for a red light? What was I trained to do when I notice that the traffic in front of me is stopping? 

If only human factors worked in the same way as traffic signals. Instead, fatigue is like slowly deteriorating road conditions. At the start of the day, when a driver is feeling well rested, it’s like driving on fresh asphalt. But then, as the driver logs hour after hour on the road, it’s as if the surface slowly starts wearing down. Gradually, cracks in the road appear. The shoulder becomes soft and starts falling away. 

And suddenly, after six or eight or ten hours behind the wheel, the driver realizes the road is no longer paved but instead is gravel. How long have they been driving on the road like this? Maybe it’s been twenty minutes, or two hours. The change in surface quality was so subtle the driver never noticed. 

And the problem becomes even more of a rat’s nest when you consider that fatigue levels are also influenced by the amount of light, heat, stress, nutrition and many other influences that could make four hours of driving affect the driver as if they’d been on the road for a full day. Even the rate at which human factors appear can fluctuate. And there’s no law in the world that can effectively manage stress behind the wheel or restrict people from driving if they haven’t been sleeping well lately. It’s up to the individual drivers to take care of themselves—if they know how to properly manage their human factors. 

Other human factors operate in the same way. They’re tricky because there’s no decision point. There isn’t a clear, unambiguous signal like a red light to signal that fatigue has arrived, and so it’s time to do something about it. Rules about continuous hours of driving are clever attempts to find a back-door access to fatigue. If you’ve been driving for eleven hours, surely you must be tired. And true enough, but who’s to say when that fatigue arrived? It was likely posing a risk to the driver well before the hours-limit was met.  

Fortunately, we know there are several types of training and strategies that can mitigate the dangers posed human factors. Because for several decades, we’ve seen the aviation industry do so with great success. 

Like its ground counterparts, the aviation industry hinges on people’s ability to maneuver massive machines at high speeds. The amount of hazardous energy is staggering. Yes, pilots often have a co-pilot in the cockpit and guidance from air traffic control. But aviation is just as prone to human error as the transportation industry, and when human factors strike, the consequences can be just as deadly. The big difference is that for decades, aviation folks have been miles ahead of almost everyone else in building training and procedures that center practical knowledge of human factors. 

In fact, you can find discussions of human factors in many of aviation’s educational materials. The Federal Aviation Administration has embedded certain mental human factors or “attitudes” in “Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge,” citing the potential for human error caused by pilots who are overconfident or feel the need to “do it quickly.” The same handbook offers a pre-flight checklist to help pilots assess the risk of an incident. The very first question is about fatigue. 

Transportation folks should take note. While commercial pilots are subject to their own set of laws about number of hours they can spend in the air over a given period of time, the checklist doesn’t ask pilots whether they’re breaking a rule. It asks if they feel tired. It prompts them to think about a human factor and rely on their training and experience to make a judgement call. And it does so within a positive error culture, where it’s acceptable to say, “There’s a problem with how I’m feeling and I could make a costly mistake as a result.” In an industry where it’s hard to supervise workers and offer just-in-time corrections while they’re in the air, this checklist offers a crucial point of reinforcement on human factors. 

Consider this a two-part call to action for leaders in the transportation industry. You know that fatigue and other factors are problem. Rules and regulations have restrained some potentially deadly outcomes, but there’s still plenty of room for human factors to run amok. More is necessary. 

Ask yourself two questions. First, what knowledge and skills are you offering employees to help them recognize and respond to fatigue and more? Memos, reminders and quick chats are no replacement for proper human factors management training.  

Second, what are you doing to cue workers to recall their human factors training or to consider how their mental and physical states might be affecting their safety? It doesn’t have to be a checklist like the one from the aviation handbook, but it should function in a similar manner by nudging workers to think about fatigue, distraction and rushing before they cause problems. 

Don’t let fines, rule-breaking or the fatality stats on roadway crashes be the signal that indicates someone was rushing, tired or complacent. Follow leaders in other industries and merge required training with more fluid prevention strategies to help drivers manage the variability of human factors that are always following them in their blind spot. Because clearly, they’re not going to spot those factors on their own. 

This article originally appeared in the October 1, 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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