Chapter 6: Human Factors and Ergonomics in the Media

by Ron Gantt and Steven Shorrock

Practitioner summary

Human factors and ergonomics (HF/E) as a discipline and profession addresses issues of profound interest to society. But the discipline and its subject matter tends to be represented in a small number of narrow contexts in the news and entertainment media. ‘Human factors’ tends to be associated with failure and ‘human error’, particularly involving front-line personnel. Narrative strands are woven into powerful stories that present the human as either hero or villain. Some features of a story (usually the ‘human factor’) are made prominent while others – such as system and context influences – are routinely glossed over or ignored. ‘Ergonomics’, meanwhile, tends to be associated with physical injury and office work. The entertainment media often reflect HF/E themes in tales of a fundamental distrust of technological advances. Meanwhile, the actual work of HF/E practitioners in improving system performance and human wellbeing is hardly ever represented. In this chapter, we consider these issues and offer some implications for HF/E practitioners to help minimise the negative consequences of media effects on the perceptions of clients and stakeholders, and take advantage of opportunities.

Chapter quotes

“While we in the discipline tend to see human factors and ergonomics as synonymous, the Anglophone media (and probably the public) does not. In the minds of journalists, and perhaps the general public, ‘ergonomics’ is more clearly associated with ‘design for human use’, while ‘human factors’ is primarily associated with accidents (and, to a much lesser extent, accident prevention).”

“We think that HF/E practitioners can help to shape the popular narrative. HF/E practitioners have opportunities to anticipate and minimise the negative consequences of media effects on the perceptions of clients and stakeholders, and perhaps take advantage of the rare positive effects.”

“We wonder how HF/E practitioners, as consumers of media, are affected by media effects. Do we, at some level, also buy into the argument that human error is the cause of x% of accidents, for example – even if ‘we know what we mean by that’?”

“While it is difficult to influence the media’s portrayal of HF/E and related issues, it can be done in collaboration with media channels (if done carefully), or through social media.”

Practitioner reflections (scroll down to add your own reflection)

Reflection by Martin Bromiley (author of the Foreword)

My experience of working with the media has largely been positive. Most journalists can relate to “systems” issues. I remember one particular national TV reporter describing how her previous news organisation was very good at planning and briefing to ensure the right resources and reporters were in the right place at the right time, whilst her current organisation was somewhat different!

It is inevitable that the media will focus on human stories and not system redesign. Taking your time to build relationships with the media is important so they know there’s someone to call on when needed, but also making sure they understand what HF/E means. Generally national media are intelligent and “get it”. You will be approached to comment on the latest “disaster”. I would argue the important thing is to put yourself in the shoes of those involved or possibly holding some accountability/responsibility before you speak with the media. How would you want to be commented on? A principle I’ve always tried to follow is that my comments should cause no further harm, to any party.

HF/E is so important to our future that we can’t keep it to a few knowing professionals, we must engage with the media as a process to educate and deliver a better future.

Reflection by Dom Furniss (author of Chapter 31)

This chapter covers an important topic: how people perceive HF/E and HF/E related issues in the wider world. I really like the commentary on how the media often look for simple accounts of heroes and villains, focused on individuals. This makes me more mindful of my own simplistic accounts of the way the world works. For example, in some recent focus groups on the topic of human error we were challenged and encouraged by members of the public who understood that people were often unfairly blamed and vilified by the press. They understood that systemic factors influenced the likelihood of error but did not talk about this in such terms, or HF/E terms. I was impressed that they seemed to generally reject the simple framing of error. The press vilifying people for errors is a big problem in healthcare. Movement against this trend includes articles on ‘the second victim’ which frames the perpetrator of the error as a victim instead. Of course not everyone understands a systems perspective, I have spoken to  some managers who have just recited the training mantra at me to improve performance despite me suggesting other factors to consider.

Also, in terms of added complexity, people often perceive human factors and ergonomics as different areas even within our community. I recall speaking to a potential employer who worked at a usability consultancy at a networking event in my younger days, as soon as I mentioned my interest in ergonomics he pigeonholed me into the physical assessments and manual handling box and suggested other companies I should talk to. I think our broader area covering human factors, ergonomics, usability, UX, interaction design, etc. etc. is a mess in terms of labels and definitions. How can we expect outsiders to have a clear view of these things when many insiders don’t either? I agree with the view that human factors and ergonomics are synonymous but I feel like we are losing this battle as the field expands and diversifies.

I like the turn to HFE themes in movies. My own recommendations for more direct links to HFE in movies include Kitchen Stories (2003) which is a comical take on ergonomic field studies intended to design better kitchens and Temple Grandin (2010) which is a based on a true story of a remarkable lady who redesigns equipment and processes for humane livestock handling. Both are highly entertaining and thought provoking for HFE and non-HFE types.

Reflection by John Wilkinson (author of Chapter 20)

I think that the HF/E community could usefully identify a few talking heads who have some kind of media-friendly backstory (so that the media will naturally come to them). It would also help if there was a single authoritative website that could do what e.g. the HSE has been doing in recent years – challenging the media stories and reports on ‘elf and safety’ (with some success). The Safety Differently blog has some of these features but perhaps a one-stop shop with the IEA definitions etc. there or clearly linked could help, along with some media contacts for specific domains of news. The natural UK host is the CIEHF. The media will come to such sites if (a) they know about them; and (b) they find them useful for information and, sources and sound-bites.  Use pull rather than push in other words.

The ‘Hero of the Hudson’ has been consistently  careful to claim only that the team of which he was part (including the cabin crew) were successful because they had trained (CRM) for communication, co-operation and leadership.  He and his co-pilot also were well prepared and followed what procedures / checklists they could (see e.g. Atul Gwande’s account in the Checklist Manifesto for the co-pilot’s dogged use of the engine restart procedure – not pointless, just thorough).  They were methodical, well-prepared and trained, decisive and a little bit lucky.

On heroes and villains in the entertainment industry – there is some appetite even in Star Wars for a more nuanced account of evil (Luke Skywalker’s errant son is allowed to entertain some doubts even if he ends up killing his father in the end).  I also wonder if there is a System 1 (fast thinking) / System 2 (slow thinking) aspect to this.  So if we have more time or are made to feel a little surprised e.g. by an HF/E’s response to an incident to the media, then System 2 kicks in and we entertain more nuance and complexity.  And as Shakespeare among others has shown there is real appetite for such complexity, Hollywood blockbusters notwithstanding.  Game of Thrones also does way with some of that hero / villain bipolarity and is very popular – characters are more complicated and less predictable, motives are more mixed (even if the system stinks!).

Anyway as the Joker once said: ‘I give a name to my pain – Batman!’ – and this chapter gives a good name to our HF/E pain along with some possible remedies.

Reflection by Daniel Hummerdal (co-author of Chapter 26)

Perhaps HFE professionals could become better story tellers if they want to impact. Science is good, but it needs to be packaged in a human friendly way. Perhaps we can become better at developing narrative types that are not heroes and villains, but about messy intriguing details and succeeding despite the odds


About stevenshorrock

I am a systems ergonomist/human factors specialist and work psychologist with a background in practice and research in safety-critical industries. My main interest is human and system behaviour in the context of safety-related organisations. I seek to enable improvement via a combination of systems thinking, design thinking and humanistic thinking. I am a Chartered Ergonomist and Human Factors Specialist with the CIEHF and a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society. I currently work as a human factors and safety specialist in air traffic control in Europe. I am also an Adjunct Senior Lecturer at the University of New South Wales, School of Aviation. 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 @stevenshorrock
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One Response to Chapter 6: Human Factors and Ergonomics in the Media

  1. Pingback: The Archetypes of Human Work: 4. Ignorance and Fantasy | Humanistic Systems

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