As shown, checklists can be a very useful and efficient tool in protecting against undesired outcomes. That said, they continue to be implicated in safety investigations, and it is important to address strategies we can use to ensure they serve their intended purpose, and not detract from it.
Ross (2004) suggests a number of techniques when using checklists to ensure they are used to their maximum and intended advantage.
These strategies include adherence to designated crew roles when initiating and subsequently checking items, as crew members acting out of their defined roles can create confusion. This can contribute to distraction, or the assumption that someone else has checked/set an item, when they may not have.
Ideally checklists are performed during non-critical phases of flight, bearing in mind that their intention is to protect such phases of flight, however during a time when the workload is as low as possible. Mention has been made of the importance of trigger points, and the careful consideration that goes into determining these. Adhering to them to avoid problems is an important strategy for ensuring that the checklist is completed properly and at the most opportune moment. This is especially so in abnormal situations, when those trigger points may be easily overlooked or disregarded, and workload might be high. Remember – the checklist items are specifically designed to protect against the most critical items for the safety of a flight – so taking time to consider any checklists, where possible in an abnormal scenario, is important.
Adherence to the correct phraseology is a simple technique that can help to protect against confusion and distraction. There are countless examples of non-standard phraseology causing uncertainty in aviation. Whilst not a checklist issue – the fatal crash of Avianca flight 052 in 1989 very clearly highlights the problems that can ensue when communication becomes confused or unclear (NTSB, 1991).
When a checklist is interrupted (such as by a radio call), understanding exactly what your procedure is to ensure that the checklist is completed in its entirety. Some operators stipulate that a checklist that has been interrupted must be started again from the beginning, or repeating the previous item.
Also – ensuring that you acknowledge the checklist has been completed. This may mean announcing it out loud for the benefit of other crew members, or in single pilot operations, making that distinction in some way, so that it is clear that it is complete, and you are able to move onto the next task with confidence.
Good checklist use requires discipline and adherence to Standard Operating Procedures. This attitude towards checklists should be encouraged and fostered from the top-down of an organisation (Higgins & Boorman, 2016) and ingrained in the culture of the business. User engagement plays a role, as people who are involved or encouraged in good checklist use are more likely to use them properly.
Appropriate checklist use should be consistently required in training and checking activities. When there are many checklists – such as for more complex aircraft – a number of abnormal checklists may be applicable, so ensuring that training includes supporting crew in selecting the most appropriate checklist, in the most appropriate order, for the failure being practised.
If a checklist is implicated in an incident – remember to consider that there might be scope to improve the checklist and the way it is used, rather than assuming focus on the individual. That said, ensuring that checklist discipline is taken seriously is essential, as it places value and emphasis on the individual’s responsibility to use the checklist the way it was intended.
It is clear from the extensive research, in both aviation and other fields, that checklists have great potential to have significant positive impact on the safety of the flight. This is highlighted in the early example of the Boeing B-17, from its unsuccessful trial flight, to its subsequent and lengthy career. No doubt there are countless examples of people everywhere who have been protected against missing a critical task, and the possibility of a serious outcome, thanks to a checklist.
They are effective and efficient, but like everything, they are also fallible. Care must be taken in the development and use of checklists to ensure that they offer the best protection, and don’t serve the unintended purpose of detracting from the safety of a flight. In aviation this is a joint responsibility. Of the manufacturer – to ensure the checklist is designed as well as it can be, of the operator – to ensure the ‘checklist culture’ encourages the intended use of the checklist, and of the individual – to practice discipline and care when completing checklists.
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