HFA Human Behavior and Safety Insights

A book chapter on Autism and Higher Ed

July 8, 2015 | Posted by Gavin Huntley-Fenner

Huntley-Fenner 2015 Autism Paper

When I was a grad student in Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, I learned about autism in the context of classes in cognitive development. I taught classes from that perspective as well. However, I knew very little about the impact of autism on people’s lives and on the emotional and social experiences of children. Fast forward twenty years or so and my experiences as a school board member in Irvine (2004-2013) opened my eyes to some of the curricular and social challenges facing autistic students. I also served for a while on California’s Statewide Autism Advisory Committee in the State Department of Education in 2007. The transition to adulthood, job/college/independent living etc, was one of the big concerns of our work. Today, when I think about autism and related disorders I have a broader perspective, drawing on my own scientific training as well as my interactions over the years with parents, teachers, special needs services providers, school administrators, family physicians and public policy experts.

This chapter represents a coming together of those various strands. I was asked to write a piece about cutting edge issues in higher education. The paper is about whether the growing dependence on education technology is a good thing or bad thing for autistic students in higher ed settings.

If you enjoy it please let me know …. and get a copy of the book!

Dr. Huntley-Fenner at the CA Department of Education “Grip and grin” with staff

My January 2015 LA Times Op Ed on human error

January 9, 2015 | Posted by Gavin Huntley-Fenner


Ebola lapses show lab safety protocols should factor in human error

Christmas Eve brought the unwelcome news that a lab worker at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may have been exposed to the Ebola virus. It was the latest in a series of similar lapses. Citing such problems, the Obama administration in October suspended some government-funded research projects involving genetic modification of viruses that have the potential to set off a worldwide epidemic. The lapses reported so far have not involved serious injuries or fatalities. But is the lack of serious harm evidence that current safety measures are effective, or are the lapses early warning signs of systemic problems?

The recent Ebola exposure at the CDC occurred just four days after a symposium on lab safety at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington. A broad cross section of experts, including me, assembled to ponder such questions, to debate the risks and benefits of the suspended research and to begin to discuss how to implement and enforce risk assessments of laboratory processes.

On one side of the debate were virologists, postdoctoral researchers and graduate students for whom the research moratorium represented a threat to their professional careers. They advocated for the public health benefits of their work and warned of the risk to America’s scientific leadership posed by the moratorium. On the other side sat bioethicists, public health experts and a nervous public, all expressing concern about safety and bioterrorism.

Everyone debated: Can scientists safely genetically modify and propagate some of the most dangerous viruses on the planet? My role as a scientist involved in human behavior and safety-related decision-making was not to take sides on the issue but to talk about the human factor in safety precautions and lapses. In other words, to help figure out how to complete a risk assessment that is robust enough to protect the health and safety of the general public given the truism that “to err is human.”


Read more on the LA Times site …

At the National Academy of Sciences

December 30, 2014 | Posted by Gavin Huntley-Fenner

Gavin speaking at NAS

I was recently honored to be asked to present on the “Potential Risks and Benefits of Gain-of-Function Research” at National Academy of Sciences.

It was quite a meeting. Very interesting conversations evolving about whether and how to safely conduct research involving pathogenic viruses with pandemic potential. More to come on that later.

My presentation was on Human Factors and Risk Analysis. I drew on my experience conducting hazard analyses and my background as a cognitive psychologist. I essentially tried to make the case for ensuring that however  risks and benefits are assessed, we ought to strive to understand to role of human error, accept that human error is inevitable and design systems that have layers of safety built in.

Do People Listen Better When They’re Having Fun?

November 13, 2014 | Posted by Gavin Huntley-Fenner

It isDon'tWalk not often that a television show presents real world human factors problems and brings science to bear on understanding and addressing them. National Geographic is about to launch a series examining behavior change. It is called “Crowd Control” and features “behavior expert” Daniel Pink as host. Pink is not a scientist, but he is a very talented communicator of scientific findings. So far the program appears to be a wonderful way for engineers or non-psychologists to understand the connections between human behavior and safety. For example, often engineers or planners will prepare written signs to encourage desired behaviors (“Don’t UseStairsWalk,” “Clean up after your dog,” “Take the Stairs”).

Designers of signs or warning messages sometimes try to appeal to emotions–including positive ones such as our empathy, our sense of duty or our sense of humor, or to negative ones such as our sense of shame, fear or disgust.

You can see some of these strategies at work in the following “Clean up after your dog” signs:


Crowd Control” ups the ante by exploring how technology can add novelty and reintroduce a sense of fun to various signs and warning messages. The producers report that, at least in the short term, they have had some success increasing behaviors that comply with the messages. Note that although these programs often draw on cognitive psychology and human factors research, they are not intended to rival a peer-reviewed scientific level of quality. Nevertheless, they are worth watching if only for some amusing examples of human genius and folly.

Dr. Rick Martin on fire’s dual nature and human factors

September 12, 2014 | Posted by Gavin Huntley-Fenner

RichardMartin-1-3I’ve read that all thermal engineers have an inner firebug, is that true?
There is a very small kernel of truth to that rumor, but I assure you it is fully suppressed in all practicing engineers I know. When you think about it, fire is a very evocative phenomenon. Its dual nature (e.g., its ability to provide amazing benefits and to inflict great harm; its rarity and omnipresence; its use as a symbol for passion and for death) gives it a special significance to most humans. Those of us who study it in order to develop safe, clean, and effective systems that harness its power are perhaps even more sensitized to the lore and legend of fire than others who may take it for granted.

If you could have dinner with any thermal scientist in history, whom would you choose?
I just took a trip to Paris where my son is attending university, and I noticed the names of 50 or more famous French scholars, authors, and scientists inscribed on the Eiffel tower. It was remarkable to see how many of them were “thermal scientists.” I had to narrow the field to just one, I would choose Carnot. Carnot’s most memorable contribution to science was his study of the laws of thermodynamics.

What’s the most important unanswered question in your field?
Turbulence and its impact on all fluid flow (including reactive flows like fireplace flames) is the biggest question still facing thermal scientists and engineers. Werner Heisenberg, the physicist after whom the “Uncertainty Principle” is named, is credited with the remark: “When I meet God, I am going to ask him two questions: Why relativity? And why turbulence? I really believe he will have an answer for the first.”

What is your favorite fictional depiction of your field?
I don’t watch it often, but I remember getting a big kick out of the television show “CSI” where the crime investigators use their brainpower as opposed to physical prowess. A lot of people I meet ask me about the CSI program when they learn I investigate fires and other accidents, and I beam a little bit when I tell them they have hit the nail on the head – investigating accidents is very much like investigating crimes.

What are the most interesting human factors issue you’ve come across?
The most fascinating aspects have to do with cognition – i.e., perception and discernment. An academic subject that I once dabbled in is the philosophy of epistemology. I see cognition as the physiological/psychological child of epistemology. When Human Factors scientists are able to show conclusively how certain types of visual, audible, and tactile inputs evoke unique and (relatively) predictable responses from humans, I have to say, as a lay-person in that field, it’s very enjoyable to be informed and enlightened by their work.

Dr. Martin is an engineering consultant regarding thermal issues particularly fires involving vehicles or equipment failures due to thermal combustion. Read more at http://www.martinthermal.com/

A better understanding of memory could lead to a fairer justice system

August 5, 2014 | Posted by Gavin Huntley-Fenner

One of the reasons I enjoy my work is that I get to share some of the cool research findings that challenge our basic assumptions about how the mind works. Here is a recent example from the lab of a UCI colleague, explaining once again why eyewitness testimony should be considered carefully. According to the video, lack of sleep can significantly affect the quality of reported recollection. It features grad student Steven Frenda.

Who are we? and What do we do?

June 20, 2014 | Posted by Gavin Huntley-Fenner

Huntley-Fenner Advisors provides scientific advisory services regarding both human capabilities and behavior related to the safe and effective use of products. We distinguish ourselves through…

An unimpeachable record of integrity; Gavin Huntley-Fenner, Ph.D., is regularly sought out for expert witness and non-litigation advice.

An analytic approach grounded in peer-reviewed research and creative, practical problem solving.

A results oriented mindset. Our Consumer Products Hazard Analyses have significantly reduced the potential for harm involving client products.