Chapter 2: The Nature of the Human Factors/Ergonomics Profession Today: An IEA Perspective

by Margo Fraser and David Caple

Practitioner summary

Human factors/ergonomics (HF/E) delineates itself from related professions via a design-driven systems approach with the dual outcomes of optimising human well-being and system performance. However, use of the terminology ‘human factors’ and ‘ergonomics’ varies, and the variations can create confusion. While HF/E practice is typically unregulated, wide variations in the breadth and depth of practice have resulted in a number of certification bodies that use the competencies set by the International Ergonomics Association (IEA) to certify practitioners to provide a measure of confidence in the HF/E services they receive. However, it can be challenging for students to find academic programs that lend themselves to attaining the required competencies. There is a particular requirement for the HF/E profession to support the development of practice in developing countries through tools, education programs and support through organisations such as the IEA, the ILO and the WHO. Increased emphasis on demonstrating the value of HF/E as a means to improve performance in addition to well-being will be needed from the joint efforts of researchers and practitioners to move HF/E from a reactive endeavour to a necessity in up-front design.

Chapter quotes

“…the nature of the HF/E profession today varies within and between countries. Diversity in contexts and cultures at the country, organisation and individual levels dictates the means of application and influences the areas of practice. At the same time, the use of a systems approach with the objectives of optimising human well-being and overall system performance provides the thread of commonality and serves to delineate the HF/E professional from those that focus on only one of these objectives.”

“Once in practice, it can be a shock to find out that clients do not want a report written in scientific format. Clients want the bottom line. … Good communication skills are also essential in dealing with the worker population who may have a large range of education and language skills.”

“Organisations are typically not willing to fund large, lengthy studies. They want to solve an existing problem or implement a design that remains on time and on budget.”

“In contrast to developing countries, the majority of society members from developed countries tend to work directly in the field of HF/E as practitioners with smaller numbers in academia and research.”


Practitioner reflections (scroll down to add your own reflection)

Reflection by Christina Jonsson (President Nordic Ergonomics and Human Factors Society, NES)

HFE as a field for science and practice and as a profession is struggling hard in some of the developed countries. In fact, it is going backwards in some. I can see this in the Nordic countries, even though the situation varies between the five Nordic countries. There is a limited understanding of ergonomics and it is often associated with physical aspects only. There is strong tradition that an Ergonomist is a physiotherapist, e.g. in Sweden. A person working in the field of cognitive and/or organizational ergonomics, as researcher or practitioner, does not define herself or himself as Ergonomist, but maybe as a Human Factors Specialist. The demand for a certified Ergonomist with credentials as a European Ergonomist by CREE is low to non-existent. Many HFE professionals have the potential to become certified but why should they, when there is no demand for it? The educational situation in Sweden with regard to HFE is quite good, but I have understood that in Norway it is not. In Denmark the focus is on “work environment” and not on “ergonomics” as concepts. At the same time, the design of the work environment, the design of products and the design of systems are generally high in the Nordic countries.

Reflections by Candice Christie (South Africa)

In South Africa, the term ‘Ergonomics’ is typically used, although we see the terms as synonymous.

We are in the process of finalizing our certification body. This is aligned with the Ergonomics Society of SA and is line with professional standards. It is referred to as the Professional Affairs Board (PAB) and we have two qualifying levels – that of a fully fledged Ergonomist which is a Certified Professional Ergonomist (CPE) and a Certified Ergonomics Associate (CEA) who will be qualified to do more basic risk assessment – so to be able to identify basic risk and make basic recommendations. We, at Rhodes, have just started a Postgraduate Diploma in Ergonomics to train students at this level. Our CPE will still require a MSc in Ergonomics and 5 years experience. We recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with our Department of Labour to train all of the Labour Inspectors as CEAs so we are hoping to broaden our scope and make more difference in a broader context. We believe that this will be of huge benefit to the profession and to worker well being in South Africa.

As noted in the chapter, report writing is a major challenge for us too. Employers have commented on how well prepared our students are to write scientific reports but not in non-scientific formats. We are however starting to change this and incorporating more consultancy based report writing in our honours course. This is definitely a different type of skill which students need. The emphasis on qualitative data noted in the chapter is our paradigm too, however, because we are within the Science Faculty. We do include some qualitative assessments but not nearly enough. We believe strongly in the benefit of doing applied research and this is our selling point for industry.

We work quite hard in developing communication skills – particularly presentation skills and verbal communication. This, I believe, is one of our strengths. Our biggest issues are surrounding culture and language as we have 11 different official languages. Most of our students are English speaking and so communication in different African languages is problematic and something we are acutely aware of.

A major issue for us in South Africa is health (communicable and non-communicable diseases impact work productivity) plus socioeconomic status (lack of education, high levels of unemployment, exploitation of children). Finally, a dichotomy for us is the mix of third and first world influence. So we have highly automated, international industries and, at the other extreme, the large informal sector – the challenges are so different.

Reflection by Karl Bridges (Former president Human Factors and Ergonomics Society of New Zealand, HFESNZ)

A lot of what I am reading from other testimonies, I find myself nodding in agreement. Whilst gaining certification was a (surprisingly) simplistic affair for me, filling the forms out was not. Many of my peers have been put off applying for certification due to the complexity of the process. Some have had a negative experience and no longer wish to apply, feeling that they do not need the certification anymore – as a result the HFE profession is losing out.

HFE is relatively misunderstood in NZ industry in comparison to other countries and I often find myself being partitioned into Health & Safety or Human Resources. Even after explaining it, it is hard to move from those vocations. My personal preference is operational inefficiencies and human reliability. So this can become quite problematic when trying to meet with the right people and often find myself sitting in front of H&S managers instead.

In all honesty I have ceased using the term human factors or ergonomics for this very reason – utilising the term human error prevention usually makes it easier for me to meet the right people.

I am concerned by the poor quality and quantity of suitable qualifications in the field. I get frustrated hearing people profess that they are HFE experts when they have little more than a bachelor’s degree in a field that bears no relevance to what we do. I do not want to see HFE being an industry that one falls into but instead an industry one works hard to fully understand and apply it in a real world context for the greater good of safety and efficiency.

I also believe that academia and industry have a large gap to bridge – much larger than I ever imagined – I find both parties have an exceptional contribution to make. However, industry believe there is a complete lack of real world experience in academics, and they get a sense that academics look down on industry. In many cases they believe the knowledge has gone to their heads. Sorry but I hear and experience this very often. I personally want to continue to have a relationship with academia but I find red tape, some personalities and inflexibilities can challenge this.

Reflection by Rosemay Seva (President of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society of The Philippines, PHILERGO)

The practice of ergonomics in the Philippines is very limited because safety laws have been weakly implemented. There is no job title of “ergonomist” and the course on ergonomics is only offered in industrial engineering. Thus, there is no practical benefit for taking a certification examination. Only multinational companies in the Philippines get the services of ergonomists. These are people who have formal training in ergonomics.

In developing countries like the Philippines, the challenge is to educate people in the practice of ergonomics. This is the role of the HF and ergonomics society. The society can also try to write a law that mandates professions involved in design to include ergonomics in their curricula.

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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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