Aviation Safety Alliance: Human Factors with Cognitive Science
Despite technological advancements, the concept of 'human error' remains the most cited cause of aviation accidents. In many regards, pilots are trained as if they are machines - in an emergency, we are trained to react both mentally and physically without conscious processing. In emergencies or high stress situations that do require conscious processing, we’ve adopted the Crew Resource Management (CRM) model to utilize all available information to maximize safety and efficiency. Along with CRM, pilots have Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM) and Threat and Error Management (TEM) in their Human Factors toolbox. Decade after decade we saw a new aviation safety process emerge as some extension of or augmentation to the previous model.
What if staying in this line of linear growth blinded us to the ontological pivot necessary to analyze human error organically and responsively? It is time the industry takes an interdisciplinary approach for a more comprehensive proactive safety system with cognitive processing as its fulcrum.
A Gap in Aviation Safety
Crew Resource Management (CRM), Aeronautical Decision-Making (ADM) and Threat and Error Management (TEM) are broadly important but very specifically instrumental. CRM requires pilots to speak unambiguously, direct and concise, which is most useful during high stress or time-critical scenarios. ADM is limited in scope as it is heavily pilot-focused. Similarly, TEM was pushed into the flight deck rather than a broad system to impact the culture of an entire organization. It wasn’t until Safety Management System (SMS) emerged in the early 2000s, that the industry started to focus on organizational culture as a facet of safety. This integration of psychology as a subset of safety creates both the space and demand for further exploration. The Safety Management International Collaboration Group (a collaboration between the FAA, EASA and other regulatory authorities) provides a free and useful tool called the SMS Evaluation Tool aimed to unify SMS internationally and assess the effectiveness of an organization’s SMS program. An indicator of compliance in the Evaluation Tool audits for senior management to promote a positive and just safety culture (Management Commitment: 3.1.5). There is a gap in aviation safety. That gap is how to build trust, how to increase psychological safety, and how to promote a positive safety culture.
Our industry utilizes a host of data-driven approaches to enhance safety (ASIAS, FOQA, ASAP programs, for example) but we have little academic research on the impact of cognitive biases on flight deck safety and organizational safety culture.
Through doctoral research at the University of Washington I aim to resolve this gap.
Roll Call for Building an Alliance
There is a gap in aviation safety systems. We need research to better understand how human error and cognitive bias are related and how they impact flight deck safety and organizational safety culture.
In order to make this research sustainable and successful, I am creating an alliance of aviation stakeholders. Alliance members include trade associations, companies, advocacy organizations and flight departments.
Safety Culture - A Collective Term
Culture is a collective term, meaning a singular individual cannot create it. Culture is observed through the social norms and behaviors of the individuals comprising a group. Within aviation’s Safety Management System, we can measure the culture quantitatively through safety reports and qualitatively through employee surveys.
The culture of the team is dependent on the psychological safety of the individuals that comprise it. Employees who do not feel comfortable speaking up will not fill out safety reports. Those that do not feel valued will not honestly answer the qualitative surveys. Burnout and low morale are direct indicators of a poor safety culture.
The building blocks of your organization’s safety are comprised of protocols, processes, and most importantly, the individuals upholding them. When one building block crumbles from an employee’s low psychological safety, the whole team’s safety is reduced. No person, title, or position is exempt from the negative effects of low psychological safety. Its relevance is prolific at all levels.
The micro-culture of your organization or the macro-culture of the industry lies heavily on the psychological safety of the individuals that comprise it. Creating psychological safety is strongly dependent upon leadership; and, it is critical for high-performing individuals and teams. Trust is the bedrock of psychological safety. Leaders can build trust by utilizing inclusive leadership strategies. This includes admitting we all have biases, understanding employees' headwinds and tailwinds, and valuing employees for their uniqueness. We must find strength in our differences to maximize the benefits of inclusive leadership and create a genuine positive safety culture. Safety culture is not a singular, check-the-box element of SMS. It is something to improve upon daily. The tone for the organization is set by leadership but everyone plays a role. As an industry, we invest in new technologies, pilot training, and emergency training. We are always learning and always striving to do better. We can do this collectively by investing in aviation's most important asset—its human capital. It starts with a deep dive into more comprehensive human factors training.