Task engagement and flow in the operational safety of South African civil air traffic controllers

Slater, Beverly
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The field of research on human factors has grown rapidly, partly as a result of the importance of ensuring safety in aviation. Human factors, specifically human errors, contribute to significantly more aviation incidents than any other single factor, accounting for approximately 70% of all accidents and incidents (US National Research Council, 1998). Therefore, in order to continue to improve safety despite increasing air traffic, it is crucial to identify the factors that are the constituents of safety before their absence leads to an incident. This research focused on the human errors made by civil air traffic controller officers (ATCOs) during the high-risk period of shift handover. The aim of the current research was to obtain a deeper understanding of these factors in the South African context. The profession of air traffic control involves a wide array of duties to ensure that aircraft take off, transit between airports, and land safely. Air Traffic Navigation Services (ATNS) have identified a pattern of increased safety incidents that occur within the first 30 minutes of a civil ATCO starting a shift, the first 30 minutes after a civil ATCO returns from a break, and the last 30 minutes of his or her shift. This is referred to as the ‘shift handover period’. ATNS posited that the problem is a lack of mental alertness in ATCOs. The current research aimed to make a contribution to the knowledge and understanding of human factors that play a role in the underlying dynamics of mental alertness, mental task engagement, and flow in ATCOs during this high-risk shift-handover period, in order to assist in minimising safety incidents. The present study investigated the systemic, psychological, and physiological human factors experienced by ATCOs in South Africa. The research was conducted in three phases: Phase 1: Review and analysis of safety incident reports; Phase 2: Examining flow, mental task engagement, and mental workload; and Phase 3: Administering interventions: music and mindfulness. In Phase 1, a total of 123 safety incident reports for the period 2008 to 2012 were analysed. The analysis confirmed that the handover period is indeed a high-risk period. In Phase 2, qualitative data were collected through interviews with11 ATCOs. This data, combined with factors identified from the safety reports, yielded a number of systemic, psychological, and physiological factors that impact the operational safety of ATCOs from a Safety-I perspective (why things go wrong).The high-risk sectors are Approach and Aerodrome. Periods of both high and low traffic volumes are high risk. A number of environmental upgrades are required, including equipment and the rest area, and noise levels need to be reduced. The rostering of ATCOs should be done to ensure sufficient staff, without extending their shifts, and ATCOs should be rostered sufficiently regularly to maintain proficiency. ATCOs require sufficient rest, which should be promoted, and management should ensure that ATCOs take their mandatory leave. From the interviews, it was clear that the relationship between management and ATCOs could be improved, especially through regular and open communication .In Phase 3, two interventions were administered — one to enhance mindfulness and one using music therapy, together with a control condition, to determine whether these enhanced ATCOs’ mental alertness (a Safety-II perspective: why things go right). Thereafter, quantitative data were collected through questionnaires to determine these ATCOs’ mental workload, mental task engagement, and flow, to examine how these cognitive dimensions impact the occurrence of safety incidents. Mental workload, mental task engagement, and flow were identified as the most critical human factors from a Safety-II perspective which relate to and theoretically overlap with mental alertness. Flow is not an easy concept to define and identify in this context, and could not be measured using standard measurement instruments. The results indicated that the music intervention had the more positive impact on mental alertness. Overall, the findings of the research indicate that enhancing ATCOs’ safety performance would require consideration of a number of factors that play a role throughout the entire shift, but with a particular focus on the high-risk shift-handover period
A thesis submitted to the Faculties of Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree Doctor of Philosophy in the Faculty of Humanities, 2021