What’s the definition of ergonomics?
Difficult question to begin with! There isn’t a single definition that’s agreed by everyone, but the following is a good place to start:
“Ergonomics is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimise human well-being and overall system performance” (International Ergonomics Association).
The International Ergonomics Association also outlines different domains of specialisation within the discipline of ergonomics (physical ergonomics, cognitive ergonomics and organizational ergonomics).
And what’s the definition of human factors?
As with ergonomics, there seem to be as many definitions as there are practitioners. The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (based in the US) provides the following definition:
“Human Factors is concerned with the application of what we know about people, their abilities, characteristics, and limitations to the design of equipment they use, environments in which they function, and jobs they perform” (www.hfes.org)
The UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) provides the following definition for human factors in the context of work:
“Human factors refer to environmental, organisational and job factors, and human and individual characteristics, which influence behaviour at work in a way which can affect health and safety” (HSG48, 1999, page 5).
So, what’s the difference between human factors and ergonomics?
The UK Chartered Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors (CIEHF) states that:
“The terms ‘ergonomics’ and ‘human factors’ can be used interchangeably, although ‘ergonomics’ is often used in relation to the physical aspects of the environment, such as workstations and control panels, while ‘human factors’ is often used in relation to wider system in which people work”.
Human factors is often considered to refer to the more cognitive areas of the discipline (perception, memory, decision-making etc.) whereas ergonomics is often used to refer to the physical aspects (workplace layout, light, heat, noise etc.). Many ‘high-hazard’ or ‘safety-critical’ industries have chosen the term human factors to refer to that part of the discipline concerned with human reliability, error and performance.
The name of the Ergonomics Society was changed in 2009 to the Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors, partly to reflect the popular usage of both terms and to emphasise the breadth of the discipline. The Institute was awarded a Royal Charter in 2014.
What about “work psychology”?
Work psychology is the application of the science of psychology to work. This is sometimes known as occupational psychology, organisational psychology, or industrial psychology. Work psychology uses psychological theories and approaches to improve the effectiveness of organisations and develop the performance, motivation and wellbeing of people at work. It’s about how people think and behave at work. Topics addressed may include work design, organisational change, leadership, engagement and competence. There are significant overlaps between the areas of work psychology and human factors – both aim to enhance the effectiveness of people and organisations at work. Specialists in this area aim to improve the world of work, and answer questions like:
- How do we design work that helps people to perform at their best?
- Who would be the best candidate for a particular job?
- What’s the best way to implement organisational change?
- How do we design a workplace to increase health and wellbeing?
- What are the characteristics of an effective leader?
- Can Artificial Intelligence be used in recruitment and selection?
- How can you design a job to reduce human error?
- How will technology change the future workplace?
What do ergonomists and human factors specialists do?
Ergonomists and human factors professionals work across a wide range of industries, including healthcare, transport, energy, manufacturing and academia. They may be consultants, researchers, lecturers, government regulators, or a combination of these – either working for an independent firm or based within a multinational company.
As an ergonomist or human factors professional, you may:
- design a ship’s bridge or the control centre for a refinery
- improve how the public navigate around a major airport
- assess the safety case produced by an offshore oil and gas platform
- design the user interface for the latest smartphone
- create guidelines for webpage designers
- improve the effectiveness of firefighters training programmes
- assess and optimise the human reliability of railway signallers
- help dentists reduce their risk of musculoskeletal disorders
- advise a multinational organisation undergoing major change
- assess the workload of Air Traffic Controllers
- design the shift patterns of offshore workers
- design a ship’s engine room so that maintenance is easier.
For more information about career options, please see this document.
Where do I find a suitable Human Factors Professional or Ergonomist?
Human factors, in particular, has become a “buzzword” and some individuals claiming to be ‘experts’ or human factors specialists do not have the required qualifications or experience, or specialise in a narrow area without an understanding of the bigger picture. A good place to start is the professional association in your country, who maintain a register of professionals with the relevant qualifications and experience:
- In the UK find expertise here
- In the US check out the HFES
- In Australia find a Certified Professional Ergonomist
- For other countries, search the International Ergonomics Association for a regional Federated Society.
How do I become a Chartered Ergonomist or Chartered Human Factors Professional?
The UK Chartered Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors (CIEHF) is the only professional institute able to award the protected status of “Chartered Ergonomist and Human Factors Specialist (C.ErgHF)”. The CIEHF has over 1700 members working or studying in ergonomics and human factors, or a related field such as usability.
Although based in the UK, the CIEHF represents the profession in the UK and internationally. Chartered status of the CIEHF is recognised around the world. Typically, professionals will have an undergraduate degree in psychology, engineering, design or health sciences, and usually a higher or Masters degree or doctoral degree (PhD); although many professional bodies accept relevant experience.
To become Chartered, you must already be a Registered Member or Fellow of the Institute, which is achieved by demonstrating knowledge, experience and skills in a broad range of ergonomics and human factors subjects. Fellows must demonstrate significant contributions to ergonomics and human factors over a period of at least ten years. Chartered members must submit a record of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) at least every two years.
What are the benefits of human factors?
Consideration of human factors at work can reduce the number of accidents and cases of occupational ill-health. It can also pay dividends in terms of a more efficient and effective workforce. The application of human factors knowledge and tools can:
- reduce the potential for error
- reduce the potential for re-design or re-work
- decrease the number of accidents, injuries and disabilities
- increase job satisfaction
- reduce the staff turnover
- reduce the need for training and
- increase productivity.
For more information on the benefits, see these case studies from the CIEHF which illustrate the impact of ergonomics and human factors.
What does good human factors look like?
We often don’t notice good human factors, but we almost always notice poor human factors. Think about the smartphone that’s difficult to use, the password that you keep forgetting, the door that everyone pulls instead of pushes, or the clock on the microwave that’s impossible to set.