Human Factors – “it’s all about the Human Factor, init [sic]”

For many winter sports enthusiasts the acronym of FACETS will need little introduction, especially for those who have undertaken any avalanche training. Interest in Human Factors among winter sports enthusiasts, has rocketed in recent years. It is an in vogue subject.

Here lies the problem, in our search for answers we are applying concepts from other sectors with little understanding of Human Factors (HF) as a scientific discipline. We have an early awareness of Human Factors, but the application of HF is far from understood in a snow sports context.

What are Human Factors (HF)?

Human factors and ergonomics (commonly referred to as human factors) is the application of psychological and physiological principles to the engineering and design of products, processes, and systems. The goal of human factors is to reduce human error, increase productivity, and enhance safety and comfort with a specific focus on the interaction between the human and the thing of interest. Source: An Introduction to Human Factors Engineering. Wickens, Gordon, Liu, 1997.

HF is clearly a broad area with its basis in various areas. Stephen Shorrock summarises it well as ‘Human Factors’ emerged from many disciplines, with none dominating completely. Human Performance is related primarily to psychology, physiology, and sports science, with psychology dominating industrial applications. Source: Human Factors and Human Performance is there a difference?

Human Factors (HF) in Avalanche

So what about Human Factors in avalanche terrain, snow sports and mountaineering? Historically our understanding has been framed by heuristics and the work of Ian McCammon in the early 2000’s. McCammon researched avalanche incidents and identified six human factors that were significant factors in avalanche incidents.

Ian McCammon proposed the main human factors (effectively heuristics) that may influence decisions as: Familiarity, Acceptance, Consistency, Experts, Tracks/Scarcity and Social Facilitation. These factors form the acronym FACETS. For more details on this from Avalanche Canada.

Heuristics are simply short cuts to decision making which allow us to make decisions quickly and efficiently. Very simply they are “rules of thumb”. Frequently these work in our favour, but sometimes result in error. Also referred to as cognitive bias, there are many at work.

More recently the Cognitive Bias codex proposed 180+ cognitive biases. The reality is that the situation is more complicated than the six general influences listed in FACETS.

Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents: Evidence and Implications – FACETS

Ian McCammons original paper can be found here at: Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents: Evidence and Implications. I would recommend reading the full paper as a seminal work on the subject of Human Factors / Heuristics. For those who want a two minute summary this video runs through FACETS in two minutes:

Powder Magazine: The Human Factor Intro

Quite rightly this seminal work has seen the widespread adoption of the FACETS acronym worldwide, from avalanche training courses to introductory winter skills. But it remains a broad brush stroke approach to a much bigger and nuanced subject, the reality is it’s complicated!

The bulk of this blog post was written after a conversation with Karl Klassen of Avalanche Canada at the Snow and Avalanche Foundation of Scotland (SAFOS) conference in autumn 2019. Why? Because we both speculated that despite an increased awareness of FACETS that there hadn’t been a significant change in behaviour in the field. I should point out that’s an opinion, but we should perhaps ask what’s going on?

Roll forward to autumn 2020 and I have just digested this paper from Jerry Johnson et al : Rethinking the heuristic traps paradigm in avalanche education: Past, present and future.

I would recommend reading it, and then reading it again!

Jerry Johnson: Rethinking the heuristic traps paradigm

In rethinking heuristic traps, Johnson reviews McCammons work which has been widely adopted over more than 15 years.

He points out that the initial research was conducted into avalanche incidents alone, and while that may identify the root cause of incidents fails to take account of the wins. As such incidents (or accidents) might not be the best window into decision making on the ground.

This builds on Laura Maguire’s lecture Maguire, L. (2020). Cognition in the wild: Supporting avalanche professionals through cognitive systems engineering . Canadian Avalanche Association Spring Conference which is available below.

In short, taking a systems approach to the “nerd fight”, you can view this video here at

Changing the narrative around Human Factors

Human Factors is a broad term and at a practical level we should be talking about the application of non technical skills by mountaineers and skiers.

I think that non technical skills for skiers and mountaineers include: situational awareness, decision-making, teamwork and communication, leadership and task management and the application of these skills in the winter environment. Understanding decision making is likely only by adopting a systems approach to our “wicked learning environment”.

As a Mountain Guide and instructor I am focussed on the practical application of these skills on the mountain, I am no psychologist. Even if people understand and recognize human factors, indications are this knowledge does not effectively change behaviour in the field. If there is any chance of affecting these behaviours it is through a consistent and solid planning process that, hopefully, produces a trip plan that keeps people out of situations where human factors might have a negative influence! [Avalanche Canada].

Johnson is arguably on point with the final section of his abstract: We end with a discussion, and a call to action to the avalanche research community, of how we could move towards resolution of these weaknesses and add value to prior work on human factor research. Our aim is not to disparage the seminal, paradigm shifting work by McCammon, but rather draw attention to how it has been operationalized and how the industry needs to move beyond this paradigm to see further gains in our understanding of avalanche fatalities.

4 responses to “The Human Factor in mountaineering and snow sports – Going beyond FACETS.”

  1. Alan Halewood Avatar

    Hi James. Thanks for the above.
    Its taken several reads for me to begin to summarise (ongoing work- “Thinking slow”) my own thoughts on Jerry Johnson’s paper and a couple of watches of Laura Maguire’s video lecture to boot.
    I suppose where I am with it at the moment is firstly recognising that Human Factors goes a lot further than the 6 heuristic traps that McCammon highlighted (and remembering that heuristics and heuristics traps are not the same thing). Once we’ve accepted this we can then look at the issue that most of our research on decision making is rooted in examining accidents retrospectively and that perhaps a more positive direction is now needed. What are the decision making behaviours that are preventing accidents that we should educate to rather than focusing to much on a list of errors that forms a tiny part of the factors involved?
    I think in the UK (I don’t have the direct experience to speak to other countries) and particularly in the professional community (I could be limited to my own perspective here) I think we have moved from a place where there is an awareness of heuristics and reaching one of limited understanding (often limited to the 6 classic traps). We need to improve that understanding and look at how we effectively enable people to apply it. I feel this is the case because despite the FACETS model being around for almost 20 years now we don’t seem to have reached a place where it is making a difference (the accident research does point to the fact that human factors still contribute to avalanche accidents). So we need to both go the next step in promoting understanding AND give people concrete positive actions and tools (like the BAA) to avoid being avalanched.
    Awareness-Understanding-Application of human factors is a model I may need to think further on myself, I’m sure there must be similar progressions around.

  2. James Thacker Avatar

    Thanks for taking the time to post Al. I think your question: “What are the decision making behaviours that are preventing accidents that we should educate to rather than focusing to much on a list of errors that forms a tiny part of the factors involved?” is the one to ask. The way forward is identifying positive behaviours.

    On incident reporting, where of course FACETS has it’s roots, I saw an interesting quote from Dr Steven Shorrock the other day: “We continue to try to understand safety by studying very small numbers of adverse events (tokens of unsafety), without trying to understand how we manage to succeed under varying conditions (safety). It is a bit like trying to understand happiness by focusing only on rare episodes of misery.”

  3. […] mentioned in my previous blog post ‘The Human Factor in mountaineering and snow sports – Going beyond FACETS‘. I believe that non technical skills for skiers and mountaineers include: situational […]

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