Chapter 11: Human Factors and Ergonomics Methods in Practice: The Right Tool for the Right Job

by Matthew Trigg and Richard Scaife

Practitioner summary

Tool selection in human factors and ergonomics (HF/E) is very important, but the right knowledge of the person using the outputs from the tool is critical for success. Understanding the client’s need requires investigation before selecting the tool(s) to be used – clients often think they know what will work, but part of the practitioner’s job is to critically assess this and assist in formulating the right approach. HF/E tools are generally good for describing issues, but weaker where they attempt to link to a hard threshold for action. There will be times when one tool is not sufficient to find the answers to the question posed. Learning to use tools in combination and to apply experience and knowledge is at least as important as learning to use the tools individually.

Chapter quotes

“…the practitioner’s own skill in making sense of the output from tools, in collaboration with stakeholders such as front-line personnel, is key to their successful use.”

“An organisation … that has been told by their Regulator that they must do something, will often find the least expensive way of meeting the requirement. This may also result in them asking that a certain approach be adopted, which may not be the approach that an HF/E practitioner would advise.”

“In consultancy we seldom end up using the gold-plated ‘best practice’ approach (if such a thing exists). The more usual practice is a compromise solution that will meet the client’s requirements.”

“Often we as practitioners need to weigh up the result of not doing something against the consequences of doing something but not to the same level of rigour that we would like.”

“The results of the use of the tool need to be examined to make sure that they make sense. All practitioners can probably cite a situation where they have applied a tool, but when they look at the results with reference to the bigger picture they question whether what the tool produced is useful.”

Practitioner reflections

Reflection by Nick Taylor

My early career was most involved in physical ergonomics, where the RULA, REBA type tools were prevalent and much used. In fact, after a few projects where these scores had formed a major section of the reporting, we came to use them like a drunk uses a lamppost – ‘more for support than illumination’. Our experience soon meant we could focus on the key problems and develop approaches to solutions without the tools, but clients continued to find the scores and categories helpful to set a benchmark to measure future improvements.

The tools that were developed specifically in the high-hazard industries seemed, from the outside, to be an entirely different animal – much more resource heavy, time consuming and detailed – due to the level of analysis apparently required. Now I am working in those industries where Major Accident Hazards are a main concern; frequently using the tools that seemed so complex; and developing additional tools with the client organisations themselves. What remains true, as the chapter points out, is that use of any of these tools is a way of working with the client to draw out specific information, to link it to the need for change and possibly the methods of change, and so to ensure that our expertise is best applied. The tools are not an end in themselves and we should not underestimate the importance of the experience and knowledge of those wielding the tool.

Reflection by Linda Sagmeister

For me the discussion about the use of tools in ergonomics/human factors (I refer to as ergonomics), brings to the forefront the need and importance of Certification in this profession. The craft/science of our field is not straightforward, and requires a strong educational foundation together with practical application experience, during which much of the “art” is also learned and honed. Tools are a conundrum as they can both add validity and clarity to what we do (as the authors have described in their chapter), and they can add confusion when their intended application, limitations and use are not clear to the end user. Certification in a profession helps to bridge the gap that consumers (referral sources) face when they hire HFE Specialists, and wonder if they know what they’re doing. The consumers themselves may expect to see certain types of tools being used by their consultant, in order to lend confidence to their hiring choice, thinking that use of these tools is the hallmark of an informed consultant. Certification should help the consumer with confidence in their choice of consultant, and hopefully let the consultant do the choosing/using/applying of tools.

I can recall being very “green” in the field and being asked by my new manager (owner of the company) to use a tool which had been developed by that company in-house. I felt that I must have been mistaken in my interpretation of the tool, since I found that there were errors in how it was being applied (not comparing “apples to oranges” as it were). Eventually I was able to clearly and confidently point out what the flaw was, however it was not immediately and I’ve always wished I could have been more assertive. Lesson: Know that it is entirely possible that although a tool is already in use, it is possible that it could use some improvements (“home made” or otherwise). Collaboration with the authors of the tool is helpful where possible, or look to research literature to find out if there are current studies on that tool that identify further considerations for use in the field.

I am in agreement with the perspectives outlined by the authors in this chapter. It made me think of my own experiences in healthcare, where there always seems to be a shortage of funds, human resources are at their leanest, and infrastructure could be advancing in age. These are very real challenges and make the practice of ergonomics even more challenging, with competing priorities for administrators and financial management, and possibly with multiple mandates in one ergonomics position. The ergonomist’s best tool may be something that is not directly or obviously related to ergonomics in the physical – ergonomics or even in the qualitative sense, rather it may be a project management or business tool that needs to be applied just to be able to negotiate and steer through the political and other conditions in order to secure the best ergonomics outcome in the timeliest manner.

I am very interested in the psychological health of workers and the management or control of psychosocial hazards in the workplace using ergonomics (physical, cognitive and organizational), so my thoughts when reading this chapter are on what types of tools can be used (if any) to clearly show how this can be achieved. The link between ergonomics and MSDs is very clear, however there is a clear need and use for using ergonomics principles for psychological health even without the MSD link being there. Tools that help to facilitate this might be useful (and will need to be handled with the same respect and consideration as other tools must be to avoid poor or unintended outcomes.)

Finally, a few “pearls of wisdom”that might be helpful: 1. Try never to rely on one single “tool” for guidance when there are other tools that can be used in combination to strengthen/weigh out output options; 2. Recognize the benefit in collaborating with stakeholders when forming a course of action. It isn’t a weakness, it is a strength; 3. Hone your listening and facilitation skills; they are as (or more) important than the ability to use the “tools”; 4. Don’t feel pressured into using a tool that you know is not appropriate for the circumstances, even in the absence of a better one.

About drclairewilliams

I am a senior consultant at Human Applications and Visiting Research Fellow in Human Factors and Behaviour Change at the University of Derby. Most of my work just now deals with leadership and culture in the health and safety realm; trying to support organisations to take a systems approach to understanding behaviour. I blog in a personal capacity. Views expressed here are mine and not those of any affiliated organisation, unless stated otherwise. You can find me on twitter at @claire_dr
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