How my Psychology degree led me to the nuclear industry

Msc Organisational Psychology graduate, Anna Powell, has taken a completely different path to her peers since graduating with her undergrad in psychology in 2015. Instead of going down the popular routes of clinical and educational psychology, Anna has found herself working within nuclear facilities. And how does that relate to psychology exactly? Find out below…

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If you’d told me a few years ago that I’d be applying my psychology degree to the nuclear industry I don’t think I’d have believed you. Whilst I admired my peers pursuing careers in clinical & health, educational and forensic psychology, I didn’t feel they were for me. Instead, I looked for paths I could take that would still have a strong sense of purpose and allow me to put my knowledge of psychology into practice.

An MSc in Organisational Psychology was a useful route into my career in Human Factors. The course covers a broad range of topics including culture and leadership, psychological assessment and training and development. However, the module that first introduced me to my career was about individuals and their working environments.

I had initially written this off as a ‘boring’ module, as it was largely based on health and safety. However, this ended up being one of the most interesting modules I ever did. We explored the root causes of accidents across a range of safety-critical industries, in particular, the human errors and the organisational failings that contributed to them. I was struck by how much this really mattered, and was surprised I’d never come across it before.

You don’t need a master’s degree to pursue a career in human factors but personally, I wouldn’t have known this fascinating discipline existed without it. Human factors is the study of how an individual’s personal characteristics, their working environment and the design of their tasks and equipment support their ability to carry out a task safely and effectively. The aim is to reduce the consequences of human error and enhance performance as much as possible. This isn’t just important for nuclear, it applies to any industry.

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Shortly after my master’s degree, I got a place on the nucleargraduates scheme. The scheme is sponsored by organisations across the nuclear industry and aims to equip graduates with an awareness of the political and commercial aspects of the industry and technical depth in their subject area. The Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) is my sponsor and supports me on the programme through helping me to develop myself and the skills required to succeed, whilst working towards chartered status.

As a human factors assessor, I strive to understand, measure and improve human reliability in safety-critical tasks. To do this I take into account a whole range of factors that influence performance, from shift patterns (might an individual suffer from fatigue?), to equipment and workspace design (do they meet the user’s needs?), to the procedures that support them in their task (is the right thing to do the easiest, or might someone take a shortcut?).

I spend my time at work visiting nuclear facilities, going through tasks with staff and identifying the factors that have the biggest impact on their performance. These findings feed into safety assessments and where possible, improvements are addressed to minimise the risk of human error.

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Sellafield in West Cumbria, where Anna is currently seconded to. Sellafield Ltd are responsible for the safe and secure operation and clean-up of the Sellafield nuclear site. Photo Credit: Michael Lishman, Sellafield

Human factors specialists also contribute to the design of equipment and workspaces, to make sure they are designed so the end-user can complete their work to expected performance standards. This might sound simple but it’s a common thing that’s missed. Think of the number of times you’ve walked into a door because it looked like a pull, not a push. That’s (usually) okay in day-to-day life, but in a nuclear context, there can be serious consequences if poor design means equipment is incorrectly operated.

I also look at how organisational factors such as culture and leadership affect safety on the front lines. It’s important that leaders set the right tone for a healthy nuclear safety culture, and that other organisational priorities such as production and cost-cutting don’t override safety. Time and time again, accidents such as Deepwater Horizon, NASA’s Challenger and the Herald of Free Enterprise confirm that organisational forces are a contributing factor to disasters.

Once I finish my graduate scheme, I plan to progress towards becoming a nuclear safety inspector at ONR and achieving chartered status as a human factors specialist. After completing my regulatory training and gaining appropriate experience, I’ll receive my warrant. ONR inspectors are tasked with holding the industry to account on behalf of the public and influencing continuous improvement and sustained excellence across the UK nuclear industry.

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My advice to future graduates would be not to be afraid of trying something completely different. As long as you are keen to learn, you can adapt to pretty much anything you set your mind to. I work constantly with people with different knowledge, skills and experience to me. From my experience, engineers and scientists can have quite a different skill set to a psychologist! Don’t doubt the value that your alternative mindset brings to the table.


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