Going under to rise above mistakes

Under Pressure by Gareth Lock (Human in the System Consulting; £30); reviewed by Laura Watson.

Extreme environments and circumstances place all human processes under pressure and present fascinating opportunities for observation of communication, decision-making and problem-solving. There is no more extreme environment than one in which we cannot breathe without specialist equipment. Under Pressure examines human behaviour in just this environment: under water and (sometimes) underground in cave diving.

Developed in response to a series of aeroplane crashes in the 1970s, in which the behaviour of the pilots had caused questions to be raised, the interdisciplinary Human Factors approach has been applied within aviation and engineering to improve outcomes by working with the human in the system. Sadly, scuba diving is another industry which suffers from highly preventable injuries and deaths occurring as a result of human biases, decision-making and social influences.  

As a retired RAF instructor and technical diver, Gareth Lock realised that the lessons from aviation could be applied in diving. His book brings together genuine diver experience with the theory and application of human factors. The case studies usefully illustrate the everyday and life-and-death scenarios faced in the underwater world. The examples also give revealing glimpses into the thought processes of people in situations from which some divers sadly never returned. Sharing their reflections allows the diving community an insight into what goes through a person’s mind when under extreme pressure as a diver, and what influenced their decision making.  

Under Pressure covers topics relating to neuropsychology, such as perception, situational awareness and attention processes. There are chapters relating to individual and social psychology including communication and teamwork, leadership and followership. Broader discussions relating to just culture and psychological safety illustrate contextual factors. Other themes include the variable attitudes to risk and risk management, as well as responding to failure and learning from experience.

When mistakes happen, the kneejerk response is to attribute blame and deliver consequences. The problem with using human error as an explanation is that it is a dead end. It creates a feeling of knowing that satisfies curiosity and soothes uncertainty. But human error is not an explanation; it is the outcome of a series of events with the context of the system. Psychological and social processes are complex, and to understand why something went wrong, we need to examine all the data. However, if there is a risk of being blamed and shamed, people are reluctant to be open about their experience and behaviour. Shaping culture is therefore essential in enabling learning. By gathering information and applying theoretical knowledge to the analysis of such incidents, we develop a richer explanation for how a mistake occurred, and this is invaluable in the prevention of future incidents.  

This book is essential reading for anyone interested in these issues, and it achieves the impossible: making a book about health and safety an enjoyable and enlightening read!

Reviewed by Laura Watson
Clinical Psychologist and qualified scuba diver (see also her article in the 'Under…' issue)

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