A Safe Pair of Hands; the Insiders Rhona's Psychological Techniques Aid Emergency Decision-Making

Article excerpt

Byline: Graeme Smith

ON the face of it, the skills required to command an oil platform and be responsible the lives of scores of men in the North Sea may not resemble those of a surgeon performing a crucial operation in a hospital.

But both are high risk with disastrous consequences if the teams involved make a significant error.

Both disciplines have common problems and opportunities - and both can learn from the aviation industry.

For around quarter of a century Rhona Flin, Professor of Applied Psychology and Director of the Industrial Psychology Research Centre at the University of Aberdeen, has been helping make the oil industry a safer place to work.

More recently her work has been helping health services in the UK and around the globe eliminate avoidable mistakes for which some people pay the ultimate price.

She and her team investigate how human factors can influence safety and how we can learn lessons from both the way people do things successfully and incidents where mistakes have had terrible consequences.

An example of the latter was the tragic death of Elaine Bromiley in 2005 after anaesthetists were unable to place a breathing tube down her throat during a minor operation.

Instead of using the emergency procedure of puncturing her throat in a tracheotomy, doctors panicked and struggled for 20 minutes to insert the tube and by then, she had suffered irreversible brain damage.

In marked contrast was the calm behaviour of the pilot of a US passenger plane which hit a flock of geese during takeoff. He remained calm, made all the correct decisions and landed the aircraft safely on the Hudson River saving the lives of all 155 passengers because he had rehearsed emergency landings in simulators many times before.

The use of simulators in the oil industry and now in the medical world is growing rapidly - driven by the work of Professor Flin and fellow behavioural psychologists.

But it was to the advertising industry rather than the industrial world that attracted Rhona when she moved from Glasgow to study in Aberdeen.

She is the daughter of Ewen Bain, one of Scotland's most famous cartoonists and creator of Angus Og who entertained Daily Record readers for 30 years.

After completing her PhD in cognitive psychology and memory she joined a team involved in applied work looking at eyewitness identification and working with the police on photofit and lineups.

That whetted her appetite for real-world problems and when she moved to Robert Gordon University for a lectureship, she began working with industry through the Business School. She said before the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988 she had already started to look at stress in offshore occupations but there was little enthusiasm for the involvement of a psychologist investigating what was going on in the UK industry - in marked contrast to the Norwegian sector.

Rhona said: "At that time it was very hard to get a psychology researcher on to a platform or rig to do any work, yet the Norwegians, from the very earliest days of their industry, had psychologists and other social scientists studying aspects of offshore working life."

But that changed when the Lord Cullen report into the disaster and the loss of 167 lives highlighted how human factors had not only influenced the cause but also the poor emergency response. …