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Human Factors Management in the Transportation Industry (With a Little Help From Aviation)

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Every industry has its own unique safety challenges. Many of the EHS issues that dominate the manufacturing sector will look wildly different than those that plague the agricultural industry or homebuilders. But there are many areas of overlap too, and as a recent article in Occupational Health and Safety points out, certain industries can learn a lot by peeking over the fence at other sectors.

That may be truest of all for the transportation sector. In his October column, titled “Looking to the Sky for Training and Managing Human Factors in Transportation”, safety author Ray Prest makes the case that trucking companies and other transportation businesses can learn a lot from their counterparts in aviation.

It’s clear that the transportation industry has a massive problem with human factors. As Prest says, “In 2019, a third of all fatal incidents involving large trucks or buses were caused by what the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration calls ‘driver-related factors.’” When you pop the hood and start digging into the statistics, it turns out that the phrase “driver-related factors” is actually a euphemism for human factors. Notably, transportation’s “top three causes of fatal incidents are all human factors.”

No one should be surprised by the problem because it’s been evident for years that fatigue, distraction, and rushing (not to mention a host of other issues) are major issues for truckers. They’re hardly unique in that regard, as it’s a challenge in all sorts of industries, like construction, to manage human factors. But the big differentiation in transportation is the amount of hazardous energy involved in nearly every single incident—when someone makes a human factors-caused error behind an 18-wheeler, very bad things can happen, including a high likelihood of a serious injury or a fatality.

But while few industries have the same degree of danger baked into their operations, the transportation sector isn’t entirely unique in that regard. As Prest argues, there are a lot of similarities between truck drivers and airplane pilots:

“Like its ground counterparts, the aviation industry hinges on people’s ability to maneuver massive machines at high speeds. The amount of hazardous energy is staggering. Yes, pilots often have a co-pilot in the cockpit and guidance from air traffic control. But aviation is just as prone to human error as the transportation industry, and when human factors strike, the consequences can be just as deadly. The big difference is that for decades, aviation folks have been miles ahead of almost everyone else in building training and procedures that center practical knowledge of human factors.”

The article goes on to show several ways in which trucking companies can emulate folks in air transport, from engaging in human factors safety training to building structural and process-based cues to help drivers ward off human error.

Given the key features shared by the transportation and aviation sectors, the article is a great starting point for managing human factors in the transportation industry. And it should be considered required reading for anyone interested in the way that human error intersects with lone workers and hazardous energy.


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