Human Factors Research

The Ounce of Prevention Worth Far More Than Any Pound of Cure

Editorial, by Jon L. Jordan, MD, JD

Historically, over 70% of air carrier accidents list human error as a factor. We are currently in an era of major technology changes within the aviation industry and in the Federal Aviation Regulations. These changes mandate that pilots, air traffic controllers, and maintenance workers become familiar with the demands of advances that include the �glass cockpit,� the Advanced Automation System for Air Traffic Control, the Global Positioning System, and the Collision Avoidance System.

Similarly, the future portends changes in regulations and pilot controller interactions that will require more flexible, perhaps drastically different, flight management procedures. Commercial air carrier capacity is predicted to increase from 480 million passengers to 750 million over the next 10 years. Meanwhile, all of this is happening in an economic environment that cannot support major growth in the Federal workforce as a means of dealing with the changes in demands.

In spite of recent tragic accidents, the air carrier safety outlook is encouraging, as is the diminishing number of general aviation accidents. This does not mean, however, that we can relax in our pursuit of a safer National Airspace System. Aviation medicine has a key role to play in preventing future accidents and reducing industry costs with the information garnered from human factors research.

Some of these issues are being addressed through Civil Aerospace Medical Institute research projects. These projects examine such areas as shiftwork effects on air traffic controllers, pilot-air traffic controller communication and information transfer, air traffic controller workforce selection, aging and pilot performance, pilot fatigue and performance, air carrier cabin evacuation, and air traffic controller team performance.

In addition, the headquarters-based Biomedical and Behavioral Sciences Branch is playing a major role in the examination of human factors in aviation maintenance. This includes the study of such issues as computer-based training, maintenance crew resource management, nondestructive inspection techniques, and the development of a human factors guide in aviation maintenance. The guide presents established principles to reduce human error in aviation maintenance and inspection.

We have an opportunity and a responsibility to be proactive and support the aviation industry during the increasingly fast-paced evolution in technology. We can help identify how the procedural changes and new equipment may affect human performance and, therefore, enhance the safety margin.

Perhaps what is more important is that, through our research in areas such as selection, training, workload, and communication, we can help identify the most effective procedures to use in the most appropriate applications of new technology by the most capable workforce possible.