about ergonomics and human factors

Ergonomists (or human factors professionals) are people focussed.  They are design professionals - applying tools and science to physical, cognitive and organisational issues so people can work safely and efficiently.  Ergonomists optimise the fit between people and where they work and what they do. They know which trade-offs can be made, and how to prioritise critical design features.  This may include looking at the design of commercial products, system or job design (flow of activities, who does the tasks, and how long they work for) as well as how the things and equipment people use for work are designed.

At the heart of ergonomics is people
Ergnonomics Design Model
  • broader environment - social/ political/ family

  • structure of the job or organisation

  • immediate work environment (such as lighting, temperature, humidity)

  • design of buildings, plant, and equipment

  • factors surrounding the physical, cognitive and emotional workload of people involved. 

Ergonomics views the human 'system user' as central.  The needs of humans are determined and accounted for, and the system designed to fit the user.  This is in contrast to situations where users must work in awkward or less effective ways because of the poor design of things or processes. Good user-centred design results in systems that are comfortable to use, safe and effective.  The 'systems' focus of ergonomics/human factors includes:

The concentric rings model of factors relevant to work design (adapted from Grey et al, 1987, as in Wilson and Corlett, 1995)

The practise of ergonomics/human factors has overlaps with many fields, and ergonomists may practise in specific areas - such as cognitive ergonomics, product design, transport, agriculture, rail, vehicle, computer usability etc.  Many people have an understanding of ergonomics as 'about computers, desks and chairs'.  Whilst this is not incorrect, it is limited in scope.  The field of computer-human interaction and usability are a part of ergonomics/human factors, and much work around the design of computers, desks and chairs is done by ergonomists. But it is more than desks and chairs.

Which professional do you need?

The skills of health and safety professionals, ergonomists, design professionals and health professionals are often confused, and they do overlap.  To help you determine who you may need, consider:

Ergonomists (or human factors professionals) focus on people - how their activities, equipment, environment and the way they work is designed and organised impacts on their ability to do what they need to do. So:  if you want to improve your productivity by making it easier for people to do the job, or to design the work and plant/equipment being used for reduced injury risks - consult an ergonomist.  They will ensure that outcomes match the functional abilities of your workers.

Health and safety generalists (H and S advisors/managers etc) are concerned with meeting legal compliance with various codes, standards, and laws to ensure that employees have a safe and healthy workplace.  So: if you want to meet your legislative requirements for health and safety, consult with a health and safety generalist.  Health and safety generalists often consult with ergonomists to integrate specialist ergonomics advice on workplace risk analysis and risk control, into the health and safety system of an organisation.

Health professionals (such as occupational health nurses, occupational therapists, physiotherapists and doctors) may work with individuals with health concerns, often assisting them to manage conditions at work or as they return to work.  So: if you want an injured or otherwise disabled worker to stay safely at work, or to return back to work, you need to consult a health professional.  Health professionals may also carry out workplace health monitoring and a range of other workplace activities.  Ergonomists often link with workplace health professionals as they may be the first to recognise the worker health or safety risks that require our specialist advice.

Other workplace health and safety professionals (in addition to Health and Safety generalists) include occupational hygienists, safety engineers, hazardous substances specialists, and others.  These professions each have specific areas of expertise, and Optimise ergonomists are skilled in working within broader teams alongside others for specific projects.  In projects such as the design of a new work process or development of new plant it is common to have a range of professionals contribute their expertise.

Other design professionals such as engineers, architects, product designers, and project managers coordinating design work all offer specialist skills that may benefit from the addition of ergonomics/human factors expertise.  Ergonomists are engaged early in projects to assess user needs and identify performance specifications for buildings, furniture, plant/equipment, and tools.  Ergonomists are specialists in human performance and design and can carry out task analysis, prototyping, a range of iterative design approaches and user trials (etc) to result in effective outcomes without need for re-do.

Can Optimise ergonomists/human factors professionals do health and safety consultancy?

No - Optimise ergonomists are not health and safety generalists.  However we understand many of the issues and often work alongside health and safety and other professionals.  Health and safety concerns often drive the demand for ergonomics service, but it is not the only sphere in which ergonomists may work.  We may also be engaged by those with a production focus for reduction of errors and waste, to design plant that is safe to use, or to identify means of increasing efficiency and enhancing productivity.

Ergonomics services that are commonly part of health and safety include:

  • work system evaluation of factors contributing to musculoskeletal discomfort and injury, stress, or other health problems

  • design of interventions to reduce risk of discomfort and injury

  • task analysis of risky activities or actions for advice on safe work methods

  • understanding ‘human error’

  • design of work environments, work stations, work processes, tools and equipment

  • use of anthropometric data and human modelling for design

  • preparation of training materials and the provision of staff training

  • up-skilling health and safety personnel, supervisory and management staff for enhanced in-house capability

  • investigation of factors contributing to errors, re-work, or other incidents

  • working with incident investigation teams.

Can health and safety generalists or other people do ergonomics/human factors consultancy?

Probably not, though there may be areas of overlap.  Whilst many health and safety professionals and other design or management professionals may have had some education in ergonomics and human factors, it is important to seek a competent professional in the field.  Completing an ergonomics/human factors paper or attending a short course in workstation ergonomics does not make you a professional ergonomist (though it may give an understanding of the approach and methods used, or the skills to carry out some activities).  It is important that all professionals recognise their boundaries and when to bring in others.

Where do you find recognised ergonomists/human factors professionals?

All Optimise ergonomists are Professional Members of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society of New Zealand and have completed a full education in ergonomics/human factors.  HFESNZ’s Professional Membership process is endorsed by the International Ergonomics Association.  Professional Members of HFESNZ are required to abide a Code of Conduct, and are subject to a complaints and disciplinary process

‘Ergonomics’ or ‘human factors’?

Anatomy, physiology, and psychology are some of the building blocks of ergonomics and human factors.  Because ergonomics and human factors is concerned with all areas of human function, ergonomists may come from a range of backgrounds - often health sciences, psychology, engineering, sports, or health and safety.  In New Zealand (as in the UK and Europe) we use the terms ‘ergonomics’ and ‘human factors’ interchangeably, referring to the physical, cognitive and organisational practice domains.  However if you are more familiar with North American literature and practices, you will be forgiven for thinking of ‘human factors’ as the more cognitive domain and ‘ergonomics’ as the more physical domain. 

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