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Human and Organisational Factors (HOF)

What are HOF?

HOF is a multidisciplinary field focusing on how to increase safety, enhance performance as well as increase user satisfaction.

According to the International Ergonomics Association, “ergonomics (or human factors) is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data, and other methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance”.

HOF integrates knowledge in social sciences such as Management Science, Psychology, Sociology, Design Science, Political Science, to enlarge the scope of study and investigation while considering organisational, institutional, cultural or political contributors to safety. The term ‘organisational’ has been introduced to highlight the organisational level of analysis and not only the individual level although obviously organisations are composed of individuals.

Besides supporting the integration of safety at the design stage, the HOF approach provides concepts and methods to identify the gaps between the task (work as prescribed or expected), and the activity (work as actually performed or experienced and reported by workers). These gaps, whether concerning the task or/and the activity are problematic as they are a source of residual risk and need to be taken into account.

This allows a better managing of workplace reality in complex organisations such as railway socio-technical systems, which is critical to lead to safety improvements.

HOF refers to the interactions among system components and humans, considering their behaviors, at all levels such as individual, situational, group, organisational or cultural.

Examples of interactions, observable at several levels, can be found in: job design, workload, fatigue, procedures, competence management, working conditions, organisational and technological change, staffing, reporting culture, systemic investigations and audits, or the safety culture of the organisation.

The notion of interaction is not easy to grasp. For example, we can consider that an error can be caused by workload. Although this is “HOF reasoning”, it can be expanded as a function of the situation. Other factors could have played a (positive or negative) role. An error like missing information in a critical communication can be the result of the combination of factors like job design, rigid staffing, unlearned situation, lack of risk analysis or unmonitored workload. Because of these “uncontrolled” interactions, people in the field often adapt the procedures to the available resources and circumstances.

If these risky behaviours or “errors” are not investigated from a system point of view (and their root causes eliminated), they will be repeated, even generating a new informal but tolerated task, with more serious consequences.

HOF is a specific mind-set, a set of values

Furthermore, threatening to punish or punishing people in these cases will be perceived not only as unfair, but also will produce a limited effect and for a short period of time. As an alternative, maybe you will propose more training for those operators? Ok, but with a high risk for an accentuation of the difference between what is expected in theory and what is really possible in practice in the field...

It is then important to remember that these interactions stimulate people to behave in this adaptive way. HOF are not only considering people but also the context and the real work situations.

Finally, HOF is also a specific mind-set, a set of values. This is made of mutual trust, respecting the end-user as a client and making efforts to understand its real working conditions; it is a mind-set based on a multi causality and systemic reasoning, enhancing continual improvement and positive safety behaviours.

Why are HOF so important for safety?

Railway safety has improved (as in other high risk industries). At first the focus was on technical reliability. Secondly there was a formalisation of processes (SMS). Big improvements in safety performance have been made but improvements are levelling off and a plateau effect is being seen. Now it has become of prime importance to integrate human and organisational factors in order to continue to improve safety performance.


Who is involved in integrating HOF?

You, as a human being are concerned by human and organisational factors. What makes you react with anxiety to a situation that two days ago should have made you feel more comfortable? Is the context different? Are you more stressed or tired? Why did you argue with your best friend on that subject that does not really matter whereas you never did before? The situation is always a new one even if the event is similar because so many details are different.

For a company, each staff member should be involved in integrating HOF, even though the impulse has to come from the top management that has to lead by example. For example, inside the company safety advisors, managers, supervisors, trainers and front-line workers should be involved. The company has also to identify all the safety related tasks that should be more focused and raise awareness of the people performing this task. HOF integration should also cover all contracted activities: contractors, designers and suppliers.

The aim is to adapt the work situation to the worker to enable him to feel as comfortable as possible to perform his task. In order to assist people in carrying out their task, an organisation needs to understand how humans, (with their capabilities and limitations) use specifications to solve problems and take this knowledge into account when designing their work environment. The same goes for rules and regulations: as long as the workers implementing them are not considered when designing working procedures, they will be forced to break rules in order to get work done whenever contradictions or conflicts occur.

Everyone will benefit from HOF integration: workers who will have less accidents, the company which will increase its performance and improve its image and the society which will feel more confident in railways.

HOF Legal Framework

Concerning the railways, the main legislation is composed of:

  • Two directives that are to be transposed in national legislation refer to the obligation to take HOF into account: 
    • Directive 89/391 on the introduction of measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health of workers at work and 
    • Directive 2016/798 on railway safety that imposes to railway undertakings and infrastructure managers to integrate human and organisational factors in their safety management system.
  • Regulation 2018/762 establishing common safety methods on safety management system requirements that has reinforced this latter obligation by imposing to include HOF in risk assessment and mandating the demonstration from the organisation to have a systematic approach to integrating HOF within their SMS. 
  • Regulation 2020/572 on the reporting structure to be followed for railway accident and incident investigation reports.

This approach includes:

  • (a) the development of a strategy and the use of expertise and recognised methods from the field of human and organisational factors;
  • (b) addressing risks associated with the design and use of equipment, tasks, working conditions and organisational arrangements, taking into account human capabilities as well as limitations, and the influences on human performance.


HOF in Automation

HOF in Practice


RailHOF is a digital platform created and maintained by ERA and UIC focusing on HOF and Safety Culture in railways. The aim is to:

  • Raise awareness about the importance of HOF
  • Build and share HOF knowledge
  • Provide the sector with tools