Non-technical skills

(also known as "human factors")
Non-technical skills are important to everyone who takes part in outdoor activities; when effective these skills make it more likely you will return home in one piece. They are different from technical skills (e.g. map reading), but just as necessary - especially if you are leading a group.

Non-technical skills can be viewed as the interpersonal skills and cognitive skills required for effective teamwork. The interpersonal skills include communication, followership (being a team member) and leadership. Cognitive skills include situational awareness and decision making.

Watch this video if you're not convinced non-technical skills are important

Human behaviour dominates risk. Human error is NOT the same as negligence or sloppiness.

A knowledge and understanding of how our behaviours affect the level of risk - a knowledge of human factors - will increase safety (and effectiveness)

Human factors involve
  • TASK: what you are trying to achieve
  • INDIVIDUALS: competence, attitudes, behaviours
  • GROUP: leadership, communication - even in informal groups


The non-technical skills model used on this site comprises:
Safety (covered in the "outdoor topics" part of this wikispace)
Decision making
Teamwork & mutual support

The model starts with leadership because teams that lack effective leadership may not even get as far as using the other elements.

Safety comes next as the first leadership task is to determine if there are any immediate threats to safety. If any are identified these must be addressed as the top priority.

"Assessment" is used on this site rather than "situational awareness" as it sounds less jargony and is shorter. They are synonymous, though. Assessment means to establish what is going on - both with the activity being undertaken, with the casualty if there is one, with the environment (critical in the wilderness setting), and - crucially - with the team members and the team as a whole.

Decision making should come after the assessment step, to increase the likelihood of good decisions.

Communication includes communicating any decisions to team members and also communication between team members once work on the "task" starts.

Teamwork is the behaviours that will make a team as effective as possible. They include mutual support, which is members helping each other to maintain a high level of performance.

This model (deliberately) overlaps substantially with the NOTECHS model (of behavioural markers for assessing the quality of human factors performance), which comprises:
Leadership & managerial skills
Situation awareness
Decision making

There is a mini-industry modifying the original notechs system (designed for use in aviation) for use in a medical setting. One of the first initiatives was the ANTS project in anaesthesia. The rating form developed can be accessed here.

Human factors refer to environmental, organisational and job factors, and human and individual characteristics, which influence a way that can affect health and safety. (HSE definition)

We are likely to make errors!

Perhaps the most fundamental part of human factors is that human beings are prone to getting things wrong.
If we set off for a day in the hills with the mindset that we are invincible and immortal, we are at risk of getting something wrong and getting injured (or getting someone else injured, especially if you are leading a group) in the process. If we set of with the mindset that unless we take precautions something could well go wrong, we are more likley to return intact.

The two errors we are most likely to make are:
  1. Underestimating hazards (and not, therefore, using adequate safety measures)
  2. Failure to notice change (in conditions or in people - ourselves included - and not altering plans when needed)

Why do we make these errors?

There are two key human factors areas where the seeds of these errors are sown: assessing (and understanding) what is going
on around us (known as "situational awareness") and the decisions that we make (or fail to make).
  • Inexperience makes us more likely to overlook a hazard (or underestimate it) or to fail to understand the significance
of something changing (e.g. the weather).
  • Complacency makes us likley to underestimate hazards, and is more likley to occur if previous trips have all gone OK.
  • Distraction from what we're doing (which can be external or internal) increases the risk that we'll not do it correctly -
this could apply to navigation or to tying onto a harness.
  • Disordered priorities increase the risk of errors. If we are more concerned about getting to a specific summit than we
are about all the group enjoying the day and getting back safely, things are more likely to go wrong.
  • Other people may influence what we do. Even if we think a hazard is significant, if the rest of the group say it is not a
major issue we tend to go along with the group.
  • Stress may make us rush, affecting the quality of situational awareness and decision making.
  • Physical impairment, such as an injury sustained on the hills, cold or other medical condition, or problems related to
alcohol or drugs.

This model is based on Brad Mayhew's, developed for firefighters - accessible here

LTEM: leadership & teamwork in emergency medicine: external image pdf.png ltem v2.pdf
The better the team, the safer the world

Teaching HF to medical students: lessons learned:


HSE briefing paper introducing human factors

This Health & Safety Executive document introduces human factors and their impact on error and safety


Outdoor leadership
Build that team!
Multitasking myth
Crisis management in acute care settings

Mastery quiz