Nobody really likes it when planes drop out of the sky full of passengers.

Sure, Boeing or Airbus or whoever get to replace the dead metal bird, but that doesn’t really offset the reputational damage, and oh my goodness aren’t the insurance payouts something ridiculous.

There’s a lot that can be done to make the planes safer technically, but as the old computer help-desk adage goes, sometimes “PEBCAC.” That is to say, the wetware is the weakest link – namely the shaved apes pretending to be rational while all the while “helmet fires” are breaking out.

And so for quite a while now, wherever you find big expensive and complicated things that are very expensive and squelchy when they go wrong (airplanes, oilrigs, armies, chemical factories), then the Human Element, the “Human Factors” (1) if you will, are looked at very very carefully.

Sadly, the NHS isn’t so good at this. A piece in Private Eye (16-29 May 2008) got me interested in the whole issue. The story is horrifying, and tragic, yet also life-affirming. Anyone who can turn such tragedy into something positive is quite a human being.

What is NoTechs?
In the late 90s the EU had a look at how airlines make sure that their pilots and co-pilots and engineers talk to each other and make decisions when the shit starts hitting the fan.
None of the training was that hot, but they stole the best bits from several and came up with NoTechs, which is short for Non-Technical Skills, alongside the stuff about actually flying the plane. NoTechs is “the cognitive, social and personal resource skills that complement technical skills and contribute to safe and efficient task performance” (Flin et al, 2008, p1).

Why it might be useful
Well, if it’s good enough for people in charge of hundreds of lives (well, millions if you count nuclear power stations near population centres), then perhaps we non-hierarchicals might learn from it? Just saying…

Further Reading
Books I’ve read since writing this thing back in 2008 or so –
The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande
Fly by Wire: The Geese, The Glide and the ‘Miracle’ on the Hudson by William Langweische

And some articles
Fiona Godlee: learning safety from other industries
Clinical Human Factors Group
Enhancing Performance in High Risk Environments: Recommendations for the use of Behavioural Markers
B. Klampfer, R. Flin, R. L. Helmreich, R. H‰usler, B. Sexton, G. Fletcher, P. Field, S. Staender, K. Lauche, P. Dieckmann, A. Amacher
16 page report on notechs

Flin, R., OíConnor, P & Crichton, M. (2008) Safety at the Sharp End: A Guide to Non-Technical Skills. Aldershot: Ashgate.

(1) One of my favourite Graham Greene novels, made into a mediocre movie starring Mrs David Bowie, was “The Human Factor.” Narrated by a spy whose department is caught up in a molehunt, it has absolutely nothing to do with “ergonomics” or Human Factors.
Still a cracking good read though…

About dwighttowers

Below the surface...
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