Human factors and performance

Technical systems are becoming more wide reaching and complex. The railway is a technical system, in which people are as much an integral part as any mechanical component. To support the safe and effective operation of railway companies it is essential to consider the impact of technical systems on:

  • The knowledge, skills, and abilities of individuals
  • The demands placed on employees doing the job
  • The organisation and the systems in place to support the safe and effective operation of the company

HF supports the design of railway systems that optimise performance. Integrating HF activities early in the lifecycle of a design or development project can reduce the need for re-design, reduce staff turnover, and increase productivity for the organisation as a whole.

Human factors and safety

The cause of accidents and incidents is often attributed to human error. However, people rarely make such mistakes on purpose. The HF discipline provides a body of knowledge, tools, and techniques to identify:

  • factors which adversely impact human performance
  • potential errors that may occur
  • solutions to minimise the impact of human errors.

The application of human factors knowledge can significantly reduce the likelihood of an accident or incident and any subsequent loss to property, or human life.

Integrating human factors into operations

It can often be challenging to identify where and how to begin integrating human factors into rail operations. Recognising which aspects of human factors your organisation already does well, and where it could be better supported, is not always obvious. Across industry the level of human factors practice varies, and this is commonly reflected within individual businesses. Human factors knowledge, guidance, and implementation will vary between tasks, teams, and departments.

To better support industry, RSSB is updating guidance to help organisations apply human factors within their operations. The updated guidance will provide a common approach for integration across the rail industry, informed by those who work within it. More information on this guidance, what it contains and how it can help you can be accessed here.

Human factors capability at RSSB

RSSB’s HF specialists support the rail industry by contributing to research, Railway Group Standards, and systems like the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS). RSSB’s HF team consists of qualified ergonomists and psychologists, with a wealth of experience gained from safety critical industries such as rail, road, aviation, and oil and gas. These specialists are also a direct resource for the rail industry, helping companies deal with their HF issues. Our unique position within the rail industry means that we have the knowledge and experience necessary to provide a diverse and exclusive set of skills. This allows us to effectively support our members in identifying and understanding how a HF approach can help them. 

Our specialists cover a broad range of topics from cab design to recruitment and selection, route knowledge, decision making and fatigue. They also run courses to support the industry's workforce develop and better understand HF. RSSB’s HF skills and expertise are well demonstrated in a series of case studies.

Human Factors Toolkit 

RSSB specialists have created the HF toolkit page which provides a range of guidance, tools, products and services to help companies manage HF. These resources have been split in to seven key topic areas which encapsulate the key work that we do. 

Adopt a human factors approach 

A good place to start when adopting a HF approach is our Understanding Human Factors: a guide for the railway industry. This was created for designers, suppliers, managers, supervisors, trainers and health & safety (H&S) staff who work in the rail industry. Its main purpose is to answer the question What practical advice can a human factors approach offer railway staff without the need to be experts in the subject? 

You can access RSSB’s past and ongoing research projects in the human factors library available on SPARK. The projects can be conveniently navigated by topic area including human performance, selection and training, health, human reliability and culture. These resources are a good place to start and there to provide a better understanding and application of HF in rail. 


Watch our training video ‘RED 58 – Human Factors’ for operational safety information on this topic.

Find out more about our Human Factors Awareness course which explains the factors that can affect human performance at work with regards to the individual, job/workplace and organisation.

Read Right Track issue 34 which contains a Human Factors special.