Chapter 3: ‘Ergonomics and Ergonomists’: Lessons for Human Factors and Ergonomics Practice from the Past and Present

by Patrick Waterson

Practitioner summary

This chapter provides some reflection on the development of human factors and ergonomics (HF/E) over time and examines the various conceptions of HF/E that have emerged in terms of its status as ‘science’ and ‘practice’. The early history and pre-history of HF/E is described, alongside coverage of developments during World War II which ultimately led up to the birth of HF/E in 1949. Later sections of the chapter focus on a set of present day issues for HF/E which have been partly shaped by earlier debates within the history of HF/E, these include: how HF/E can be integrated within industry and the wider world of practice; and, how HF/E methods should be designed and the trade-offs involved in applying exclusively scientific criteria (e.g., reliability, validity) as compared to criteria which emphasise the practical utility and usability of methods. A final section offers some pointers to the future based on what we can learn from the past, as well as making a plea for inclusivity within the discipline of HF/E as a whole.

Chapter quotes

“… HF/E came about not as an explicit attempt to define or form a new scientific discipline. Rather, the intention was much more modest, namely, to facilitate discussion, information exchange and collaboration between scientists working across a range of specialisms.”

“Charles Perrow (1983) argued, in an analysis of the influence of organisational context on the work of human factors engineers, that the relatively weak position and low profile of HF/E practitioners within the context of the larger organisation in which they are employed, served to undermine the value and impact of their work.”

“Theberge and Neumann (2010) … found the process of actively advocating for ergonomics within organisations involved a variety of interactions and collaboration. Some of these practices included ‘political manoeuvring’, tailoring data collection and report presentations to clients’ concerns and ‘goal hooking’ in order to make the case for implementing ergonomics in the workplace.”

“… HF/E is as much about ‘practice’ as it is about ‘theory’ or ‘science’ … we actually know very little about HF/E and its application outside of academia.”

“Rather than drawing lines in the sand and continually arguing about identity and status, HF/E should celebrate what can be achieved by being inclusive”

Practitioner reflections (scroll down to add your own reflection)

Reflection from David Caple (co-author of Chapter 2)

Through this Chapter there is a theme about the tension between ergonomics and ergonomists. There is also a tension between methodologies and their relevance to practice.

Once the ergonomist has made their contribution their credibility is judged by their output including the credibility and the sustainability of their recommendations. Whilst inputs such as selection of methodologies is important to a project the “craft” of an ergonomist is to understand the outputs required and why they are engaged in the first place. This is the starting point before methodologies are selected.

Therefore I think ergonomists need to “process agile”. They need to understand a wide range of methodologies – both qualitative and quantitative then select and use them as the specific project requirements are defined. I note Patrick’s comments about methodologies that are seen by clients as too complicated. This is a major problem for credibility where ergonomists are not user centred in their understanding of the client needs and expectations. It appears that some ergonomists are too limited in their tool kit of methods and inflexible to consider other methods where the situation may be better assessed.

The history of ergonomics has focused on the human-systems interface considering the needs of the workers in a range of roles and industries. Now the focus is much more holistic. … It requires a more holistic understanding of the company’s business models and where the interfaces exist for information or services to be delivered. These can be physical interfaces as well as remote and digital via IT systems. These are exciting opportunities for ergonomists to be part of the change management process with industries as they become more streamlined and engaged with their clients. Hence conceptual analytical skills and communication skills are integral to engage in the language and concepts required in multidisciplinary teams leading the organizational and business model change.  The role of the ergonomist is to input the relevant ergonomics research findings and methods as part of the broader process of change.

The role of the ergonomist is also as an advocate for the rights and needs of the humans within a system of work. Other professions have their respective focus such as finance; engineering reliability; architectural aesthetics; etc. However the ergonomist needs to advocate for the range of percentiles of the population, individuals with special needs such as disabilities; those with cognitive needs including impairments as well as the psychosocial drivers to how groups of people use spaces. This is a unique perspective an ergonomist brings to multidisciplinary teams and I find is highly respected.


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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