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Human Factors Engineering

One domain of HSI that offers considerable potential to assist railroads in understanding and applying knowledge related to human performance is Human Factors Engineering (HFE). 

Human Factors Engineering (HFE) is the discipline of applying what is known about human capabilities and limitations to the design of products, processes, systems, and work environments”  (Defense Acquisition University, 2016). 

Human Factors Engineering is essential to address issues of operator attention and distraction. Researchers in the rail industry have identified multiple demands on operator attention (Roth & Multer, 2007), particularly with the introduction of new technology. For example, increases in information and alerts provided by displays in the locomotive cab require engineers to focus more of their attention on displays in the cab, rather than focusing their attention out of the window. Interaction with Positive Train Control (PTC) systems (such as initializing the system, acknowledging alerts and messages) also pose demands on operators’ attention (Roth & Mueller, 2007). Monitoring radio channels and responding to radio requests,  anticipating what may be ahead (e.g., speed restrictions, track outages, etc.) and knowing what actions to take, places significant demands on operator attention. Additional factors such as fatigue, and “mental vacations” also compromise safety by taking operator attention away from their operational tasks.

Human Factors Engineering and user-centered design are vital to addressing these and other challenges to operator attention and distraction.  HFE involves designing systems, tools, workstations, and work processes that minimize operator distraction and that draw the operator’s attention to information that is critical to maintain safety and perform efficiently. Effective system design can reduce the need to divide attention and provide external backups to any lapses in attention that may occur. 

Federal agency resources offer some common HFE principles and guidelines for designers to consider related to attention and distraction.  For example, one guideline pertains to designing systems (including automated systems) that support keeping the operators’ attention on the primary task..  Other guidelines pertains to the use of auditory and visual alerts.  Guidelines suggest that the use of blinking or flashing lights, or intense aural alerts, should be used sparingly, as they can pull the operators’ attention away from their primary task in a distracting manner. These and other guidelines can be considered in the design of computer interfaces, workstations, and work processes to minimize operator distraction and to optimize safe and efficient performance.

Human Factors Engineering intersects with several other HSI domains including training and safety that are important to the rail industry, particularly with regard to managing attention demands on operators.