Are pilots “forgetting how to fly”? Automation and the erosion of skills

September 27, 2011

It has been reported that an over-reliance on automated systems has eroded the skills of airline pilots, leaving them unprepared for responding to unusual or emergency situations, or when those automated systems fail:

“Some 51 “loss of control” accidents occurred in which planes stalled in flight or got into unusual positions from which pilots were unable to recover, making it the most common type of airline accident, according to the International Air Transport Association.”

As Rory Kay, an airline captain and co-chair of a Federal Aviation Administration advisory committee on pilot training said, “We’re forgetting how to fly.”

For example in 2009:

“the co-pilot of a regional airliner programmed incorrect information into the plane’s computers, causing it to slow to an unsafe speed. That triggered a stall warning. The startled captain, who hadn’t noticed the plane had slowed too much, responded by repeatedly pulling back on the control yoke, overriding two safety systems, when the correct procedure was to push forward.”

This highlights a very real problem in many major hazard industries. Rather than eliminating risk, automation can often displace it. Whilst increasing automation can result in safer systems, humans are still needed, e.g. for tasks that cannot be automated (such as maintenance) or for overseeing the system and responding to emergencies. In such an environment (where there are potentially reduced workforce levels, reduced experience and skills, and possibly even reduced job satisfaction) how do you maintain an alert, engaged workforce in a state of trained readiness?

Whilst automated systems are often introduced to increase safety, production and/or reduce the size of the workforce, companies may wish to consider increased training to compensate for reduced familiarity with tasks, and should maintain enough workers to be able to manage abnormal/emergency situations. Automation changes people’s jobs, and so training may need to prepare people for the failure of automated systems, and not just their use.

What human factors issues contributed to the Buncefield disaster?

September 14, 2011

The EI will hold a 2-day Human factors application in major hazard industries conference in Manchester, 6-7 December 2011. 

John Wilkinson (Keil Centre) will give the keynote address, discussing the human factors that contributed to the Buncefield blast in 2005. 

John was then the lead UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) human factors investigator of the Buncefield incident, and was a long-serving member of the EI’s Human and Organisational Factors Committee.  John’s unique insight into that incident and how human factors should be managed will make for a keynote address that is not to be missed.

For more information about this conference, please click here, or contact Vickie Naidu e:

Human factors engineering in projects – new OGP guidance

September 7, 2011

The International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (OGP) has published new guidance on human factors engineering (HFE): Human factors engineering in projects.

Ron McCloud (Shell), who lead the development of Human factors engineering in projects, is due to present a paper on this publication at the EI’s Human factors application in major hazard industries conference (6-7 December 2011).

What is HFE and why is it needed?

It is commonly said that there are three defences against human related risk: design and engineering controls; systems (PtW, procedures, etc.); and human controls (supervision, competence, etc.).  

In an ideal world, if all risk was perfectly managed, most risk would be managed by design and engineering, some managed by systems and finally a minority by human controls.  However, in reality, human controls tend to be used for a much larger proportion of risk as it is inpractical to design plant and systems.  Furthermore, poor systems, badly written procedures, and poorly designed plant, etc., mean that ‘softer’ human controls are often used to fill the gap left by inadequate ‘harder’ design and systems controls, potentially increasing susceptibility to risk.

HFE is a multidisciplinary approach that aims to provide a structured approach to improving design and systems controls for managing risk in capital projects.  This is done through the integration of the ‘5 elements of human performance’ into engineering and systems: people, work, work organisation, equipment and environment.


Human factors engineering in projects provides a methodology for HFE as well as a number of examples of various tools and HFE activities (e.g. human HAZOP, forming a HFE working group, etc.).  Human factors engineering in projects is now available for free download from the OGP website.

EI to hold ‘Human factors application in major hazard industries’ conference – 6-7 December 2011

September 5, 2011

The EI will hold a 2-day human factors conference in Manchester, 6-7 December 2011. 

This conference aims to promote and disseminate good practice in the application of human factors in major hazard industries. It will particularly focus on recent developments in human factors guidance, practical tools and methodologies and their application, and will provide a forum for sharing experience.  The conference will also feature practical workshops on a number of pertinent human factors topics.

This event will be highly valuable to anyone wishing to understand how human factors affect major accident hazard safety, to those responsible for managing health and safety in organisations, and to those exploring the practical application of methodologies to improve health and safety.

For more information about this conference please click here.