THE EVOLUTION OF SAFETY THINKING



The early days of aviation, those before and immediately following the Second World War until the 1970s, can be characterized as the “technical era” where safety concerns were mostly related to technical factors. Aviation was emerging as a mass transportation industry, yet the technology supporting its operations was not fully developed, and technological failures were the recurring factor in safety breakdowns. The focus of safety endeavors was rightly placed on the investigation and improvement of technical factors.


The early 1970s saw major technological advances with the introduction of jet engines, radar (both airborne and ground-based), autopilots, flight directors, improved navigation and communications capabilities and similar performance-enhancing technologies, both in the air and on the ground. This heralded the beginning of the “human era”, and the focus of safety endeavors shifted to human performance and Human Factors, with the emergence of crew resource management (CRM), line-oriented flight training (LOFT), human-centered automation and other human performance interventions. The mid-1970s to the mid-1990s has been dubbed the “golden era” of aviation Human Factors, in reference to the huge investment in  aviation to bring under control the elusive and ubiquitous human error. Nevertheless, in spite of the massive investment of resources in error mitigation, by the mid-1990s human performance continued to be singled out as a recurring factor in safety breakdowns


The downside of Human Factors endeavors during a significant portion of the “golden era” was that they tended to focus on the individual, with scant attention to the operational context in which individuals accomplished their missions. It was not until the early 1990s that it was first acknowledged that individuals do not operate in a vacuum, but within defined operational contexts. Although scientific literature was available regarding how features of an operational context can influence human performance and shape events and outcomes, it was not until the 1990s that aviation acknowledged that fact.


This signaled the beginning of the “organizational era” when safety began to be viewed from a systemic perspective, to encompass organizational, human and technical factors. It was also at that time that the notion of the organizational accident was embraced by aviation.


RASO-WA AVIATION SAFETY PROGRAM

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