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The importance of human factors in air safety


Aircraft safety depends essentially on human vigilance and team spirit. On the basis of this principle, the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission devised a training programme on aircraft safety. The training was tailor-made for the pilots of a small Italian airline. Its surprising results have led to new initiatives.

While the aeroplane is acknowledged to be the safest mode of transport, the rare accidents which do occur can be catastrophic. In 70% of cases, such accidents are due to human error. For this reason, staff training has a key part to play in stepping up air safety.

In 1997, new European regulations will enter into force with this end in view. They will ask companies to include a module in their training programmes devoted to human factors and relationships between staff members. The major airlines which already provide this type of training will have no problem in meeting this requirement. Smaller companies, on the other hand, currently have access only to general programmes which are difficult to adapt to their specific needs.

To meet this need, ISIS (the Institute for Systems, Informatics and Safety), a specialist centre for safety questions in the fields of science and technology, which is part of the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (Ispra), has devised an innovative human resource management programme (CRM/Crew Resource Management). "Our approach was original in that it was based on a detailed analysis of the corporate culture of a company in order to perceive the impact which this could have on safety," explains Pietro Carlo Cacciabue, a researcher at the JRC.


Deciphering a culture

The training project was devised in cooperation with an Italian charter company. Having interviewed a number of employees from various sectors in the company, the researchers compiled a questionnaire for pilots based on their responses. The purpose of this initial phase was to discern how staff members perceived their relationships at work (team spirit, coordination between colleagues, quality of information, etc.).

Three key elements which made up the corporate culture of this company clearly emerged from this enquiry: the importance of the hierarchy; the emphasis on "masculinity" (ambition, machismo, desire to win, etc.) and the not always harmonious coexistence of two worlds: that of the operational staff dealing with the actual planes (pilots and technicians) and that of the ground staff.

These elements have an impact on safety. If, for instance, a pilot being interviewed declares that "These old captains think they're God, which can be very dangerous," this may well mean in the cockpit that the captain is incapable of listening to the opinion of his co-pilot with the risk that he may take incorrect decisions.

... to conjure up a training programme

The highly practical study carried out by the JRC made it possible to highlight the major human problems encountered in this charter company. Taking the context of the human relationships as a basis, the Ispra researchers established the foundations for a training programme tailored to the company and aimed at its pilots.

The programme includes a theoretical part (impact of human factors on safety, analysis of corporate culture, etc.), multimedia training and an intensive seminar (17 hours, for 12 students) involving discussions, exercises, questionnaires, analyses of aviation accidents, games, etc.

The courses are given by experienced pilots familiar with the constraints of the profession and specially trained to teach this programme. It is in fact essential, if the programme is to be accepted in a positive manner, for the "students" to be faced with highly experienced professionals whom they respect and trust.

The results of the training have been surprising. "The improvements obtained by this small company have attracted the attention of the major Italian pilots' associations and national institutions such as the Italian Civil Aviation Authority," concludes Pietro Carlo Cacciabue. "As a result, we are continuing on the same path. In the meantime, we have devised a programme of new courses specifically adapted to train Alitalia navigational staff. We are also hoping to interest other major airlines."