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Reducing error in high-risk automated environments

UC researcher looking to reduce error in high-risk automated environments

January 16, 2013

A University of Canterbury (UC) psychology professor is this year looking into improving worker performance in potentially dangerous high risk environments.

UC Associate Professor Deak Helton will be carrying out experiments to see if guided distraction improves operations in such conditions. He is a co-investigator for the Australian Research Council-funded project and is collaborating with the lead investigator Associate Professor Mark Wiggins of Macquarie University in Sydney.

``We’ll also be running tests that can help workers get back on task when something important happens,’’ Professor Helton said today.

``Guided distraction is a secondary task a person carries out during low periods of workload. For example, when an air traffic controller or such has no or low traffic to control, they may do something else to pass the time.

``This could be daydreaming or it could be another external task such as doing a word puzzle or reading. Instead of letting the person do whatever they pick, we will look at getting workers to perform a secondary task that is not too distracting or hard to snap out of. This could provide them with something to fill time that is minimally intrusive or easy to disengage from.’’

When workloads suddenly increased it could be difficult for an operator to re-engage with the primary task, Professor Helton said. The project was seeking to control the demand level of a secondary task so it was not so distracting that it led to poor primary task re-engagement.

The project will investigate whether and potentially how well this approach may work in practice. It has many applications for people like power control operators, air traffic controllers, rail operators and in medical settings such as monitoring critical care patients.

``Think about driving a car as a simple example where the consequences of not paying attention to the primary task when critical events happen are dire. We know that texting, for example, while driving a car is a bad idea,’’ he said

``Why then do people do it? Some people feel they can handle texting while driving the car. The problem with texting is it draws attention away from the primary task of driving and when something happens in the primary task that is critical, like a pedestrian walking in front of a car, the driver needs to urgently switch from the texting to driving.

``We want to find something less distracting but still interesting enough to keep people engaged when the primary task is not so demanding. In the case of driving a car, how do you make the person aware more quickly of the pedestrian? While the example of a motorist may be dramatic this can also happen in many other crucial settings.”

Professor Helton said they were getting input from utility companies on both sides of the Tasman. The project will adopt a novel strategy to assist operators in high-risk automated environments, in order to maintain their performance in low workload situations so to reduce the potential for error.


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