Scattered risk students gather in Lund

A Dutch pilot, a safety manager from Australia, an average-adjuster from Denmark and twelve others who work with safety in high-risk industries came together a week before Christmas in Lund to hone their critical thinking skills. They are all studying the distance-learning MSc in Human Factors and System Safety, and it was now time to meet in real life.


Participants on the distance-learning programme gathered at the Pufendorf Institute in Lund.

It is Wednesday morning and in the lecture theatre at the Pufendorf Institute there is an air of concentration. Professor of Ethnology James M. Nyce from Ball State University in the USA is leading a workshop that will prepare the students for writing their degree projects. The material they are using is field notes from one of Professor Nyce’s own ongoing studies; and it is certainly somewhat unusual – why a Romanian priest appears to have started ending the lives of elderly women by giving them poisoned coffee.

Claims are tested, rejected and revised. It doesn’t really matter that none of the students is familiar with village life in Romania, or that village life in Romania has apparently little to do with safety in high-risk industries. The most important thing is practising the ability to analyse data, to balance internal and external perspectives and to take an academic approach.

“Our students are very experienced professionals and often have a long career behind them. However, many of them have little prior experience of approaching problems from an academic perspective”, says Johan Bergström, senior lecturer at LTH and programme director, during the coffee break. In his view, this perspective is much needed.

“High-risk environments are more complex today than in the past. When we analyse accidents, we see that many sectors are quick to accept simplified explanations given with hindsight. Instead, we want to teach the students to pose questions in a way that works for their situation”, he says.

The students are spending the whole week being coached in this art.

“It is also important for the participants to share experiences with each other”, explains Johan Bergström, adding that it is not uncommon for the participants to recruit each other after the programme.

Johan Bergström’s view is shared by student Barbara Czerkawski, an oncologist from Canada, who is standing next to him.

“This multi-disciplinary design is very rewarding. In health care, we have a lot that we could learn from industry, for instance. Making a diagnosis is about much more than just reading test results. We know that, but there seems to be an attitude in health care that we can remove human factors, which isn’t possible. We have to keep them in mind. Every time I come here, I leave feeling really inspired”, she says.

 Text and photo: Kristina Lindgärde

Two students’ views of the programme:

Cees Jan Meeuwis, pilot and senior safety consultant at KLM

“There is a gap between academia and professional practice that needs to be bridged. A lot of the guidelines in the aviation industry are 30–40 years old and haven’t been updated in line with the latest research findings. This programme gives me more confidence in my reasoning and in my profession.”

Holger Becht, safety consultant from Brisbane, Australia

“This programme produces up more questions than answers. It’s frustrating but good. Because we sell safety products for major companies, it’s easy to get bogged down in the technology. I realise now that human factors are more important and more unpredictable than I used to think.”

Human Factors and System Safety: Lund University has a long tradition of interdisciplinary risk and safety research that is implemented in education. One example is the MSc Human Factors and System Safety, which is aimed at professionals working with different aspects of safety in high-risk sectors. The programme is offered part-time over two years and is mostly distance learning. Theoretical studies are followed by an individual project that “usually produces very interesting inside information”, according to programme director Johan Bergström. The programme was initiated in 2006 by Professor Sidney Dekker, formerly at the School of Aviation. The programme is LU’s only Master’s programme offered in the form of commissioned education.