News item | 2012-04-10 | 15:05 PM

The human factor: risk and asset

Interactions between Man, Technology and Organisation (MTO) are crucial for Vattenfall’s safety management. The nuclear power industry has been aware of the importance of this relationship at least since the accident at the Three Mile Island plant (Harrisburg, USA) in 1979.

“To avoid accidents, it is not enough to examine the technology; you also have to consider how people, organisation and technology interact,” says Carl Rollenhagen, Vattenfall R&D staff member and Adjunct Professor of Risk and Safety at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden.

MTO, Carl Rollenhagen. Photo: Ralf Bagner

Carl Rollenhagen, Vattenfall R&D staff member. Photo: Ralf Bagner.

“People often regard the human factor as something negative and tend to forget that the human factor also prevents accidents. People are both a risk and an asset in a technological environment. The human factor must be considered not only in relation to those who operate the systems, but also to those who make management decisions.”

“Traditional management training never had much focus on safety, but we, as safety researchers and experts, are changing this. Vattenfall has established the Safety Management Institute (SMI) and now offers managers qualified training in safety management,” he added.

Lessons from Three Mile Island

The relationship between man and machine – often portrayed in mythical form in film and literature – still leaves many of us uneasy. How should we adapt to machines? Or how do we adapt machines to us?

The accident in 1979 at the Three Mile Island power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (USA) focused attention on MTO issues and quickly led to the development of the MTO concept.

MTO. Photo: Annika Örnborg

MTO (Interactions between Man, Technology and Organisation). Photo: Annika Örnborg.

Some of the most important topics for Vattenfall are the interfaces between man and machine, corporate safety culture, and investigation of the root causes of specific incidents. These all relate to human beings in an organisational and technological context.

“As organisations and technology become more advanced, it becomes ever more important to look at the overall picture and to make the systems easy to use,” according to Rollenhagen. “The knowledge and methods provided by MTO studies increase both safety and efficiency.”

Vattenfall MTO projects

Vattenfall carries out several MTO research projects, for instance on how to provide effective recommendations after an incident.
“Many organisations do not pay enough attention to remedial actions when they investigate the causes of incidents. It’s important to find out what kinds of actions you need to prevent similar incidents from happening again,” says Rollenhagen.

The study of man-machine interfaces is also essential for the design of power plant control rooms. This is not just a matter of optimising screens and controls, but also includes proper training and clear communication to ensure that everything works well together.

Although this may seem like common sense, according to Rollenhagen many industries are only starting to realise the importance of MTO, which the nuclear power industry did more than three decades ago.


The MTO Concept and Organisational Learning at Forsmark (PDF 102 kB)
Nuclear power services