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Changing the Culture of Safety: the Aviation Industry
Vice President for Safety and Compliance, Delta Air Lines
John Lauber approached human factor first as a researcher for the Navy and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, then as a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, and now as an airline executive. From these diverse vantage points he has learned how to change the culture of the aviation industry.
Since a large proportion of airline accidents involve human performance issues, safety is a primary driving force for human factors in aviation. But this does not mean that human factors advocates have automatic entry to the industry: they still must be able to demonstrate how investing in human factors research and development is a rational strategy for solving safety problems. This often requires changing certain aspects of the industry culture.
We had to convince the airline community—the operational community—that a group of NASA scientists and psychologists could tell a crusty old master of ocean crossings from Pan Am that we could actually make a contribution to the safe operation of aircraft. That was no mean task.
For example, human factors professionals at the National Transportation Safety Board realized several years ago that to integrate human factors into their work, they would require changing some conventional ideas about accidents and human performance. In the past, the board's investigations focused on determining who or what was to blame for an accident or error. Under this culture of blame, regulators tried to prevent human error by setting rules that prohibited people from making bad decisions or required them to do the obvious. These rules did little to stem accidents, however, because they ignored the reasons that people make errors.
A more constructive approach focuses on recognizing and systematically addressing common problems that contribute to human error. Under this approach, which the board uses today, a main purpose of investigations is to identify systemic human performance problems that can be prevented by applying knowledge from human factors.
To change the culture in this way, human factors professionals first targeted the board management, who had become cynical after years of