"Human Factors in Industrial Practice" - A Student Perspective

"Human Factors in Industrial Practice" - A Student Perspective

One of my earliest childhood memories is of standing in the playground on an icy December day, scolding the children who were having fun, whizzing down their makeshift ice slide, crying whoops of glee as the hurtled towards the bottom of the hill.  My 5-year-old brows knitted together with concern that “this will all end in tears”.  Throughout my school life, I was always the sensible one – forging a cautious path through life.  It should have been no surprise, then, that 15 years later, I should find myself working in safety management – ever alert to what could go wrong and trying to take steps to avert it.  Working in safety also appealed to my nurturing side that wanted to help people without the squeamishness of nursing or the admin of Human Resources.  I’ve spent the last 27 years working in safety management across a range of industries and all across the globe, but arguably I’ve been in safety all my life.

This year, as a mid-life crisis loomed and a global pandemic turned office working as we know it on its head, it was time for me to take stock.  I felt ineffective at work and my feet felt leaden to trudge the dozen or so steps from my bed to my home office.  I was desperate to break this cycle of feeling like I just didn’t care. In the middle of a global crisis and oil price crash, I decided to quit my job.  For the first time in my life, I didn’t have a plan  - other than some loose intent to create some breathing space by taking time out to meditate; read; appreciate walking in the beautiful North East of Scotland; bake; and spend more time with family & friends.  My plans to “relax and rebalance” lasted only a few days as the fog began to lift from my brain and I started signing up for opportunities to do something new.  I’d spent the last 10 years in consulting, working to deadlines and, ironically, delivering training to adults without ever taking the time out to catch up with my own learning.  My thirst for new knowledge was unquenchable as I devoured books; brightened mundane tasks with podcasts; signed up to online courses; and attended every webinar going.  I became busier than ever but was buzzing with ideas and my walls became littered with rainbow coloured postits as I tried to organize my thoughts.

In industry, human factors was often perceived as a bit of a “dark art” with many a risk assessment, audit report or incident investigation euphemistically noting, “human factors”.  Despite having to provide a bit of an overview during training courses, I’d only ever read through the Health & Safety Executive’s “Reducing Error & Influencing Behaviour” document and, frankly, had more questions than answers.  So when a message popped into my email about Scottish Government funding to upskill via an Aberdeen University, “On Demand” short course, it was a no-brainer.  The only question was which course to select from the dozen or so that were eligible. I was awarded a place on, “Human Factors in Industrial Practice” and couldn’t wait to get started.

At the risk of sounding dramatic, I felt like the scales were dropping from my eyes as I began to finally understand a little more about human factors and I looked forward to the time I’d set aside to study.  Each week, Dr Amy Irwin and her colleagues set the context with some great video lectures before providing a series of reading materials to give a deeper inside.  I found that the discussion boards, multiple choice questionnaires and case study helped to hone my critical thinking and reinforce the learning.  I also learned that the apathy I felt in my staff job was probably due to burnout.

I was desperate to apply this new knowledge and didn’t have to look far to find opportunities.  I started revisiting incident investigations that I’d done in the past and could see where human factors had played a part.  I had, in the meantime, set up my own consultancy business and had picked up a few pieces of work.  I conducted supply chain audits that would, ultimately, help assure the ongoing supply of Scotland’s renewable energy at a fair price to the customer.  The technical risks were all well managed.  But I found myself drawing on my learning and started asking questions such as:

  • how do you know the people on that team all have the same mental model about what needs to happen?
  • let’s examine the shift system
  • can we look at the workload on individuals?
  • what are the safety and quality critical tasks, and how do you ensure they are undertaken correctly?
  • what do you do to reduce the effects from noise and heat?

I’m also involved in Step Change in Safety – a tripartite, not-for-profit organization established in 1997 with a view to making the UK the safest place in the world to work in oil & gas.  The Major Accident Hazard Workgroup creates communication campaigns; develops training; and provides tools that can be used across the whole industry with the intent of reducing the risk from major accidents such as hydrocarbon release.  During quarter 3, we have a period of intense focus on major accident hazards and I’ll be taking the lead in ensuring that we build in human factors.  For example, there is probably some work we can do around situational awareness. 

Looking forward to 2021, I’ve signed up for “Safety Critical Skills in Industry” and it seems like that information is going to come just in time to feed into the Step Change in Safety campaign. My 5-year-old self would approve.

Published by The School of Psychology, University of Aberdeen


  1. #1
    Peter Waite

    Wow Fiona. You've just created an explosion of questions in my head!
    Excellent thought provoking article and your passion for what you do shines like a lighthouse on a moonless night.
    Brave move, inspiring. I just know it's not about you, it's your need to help others.

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