What is it?
On a macro level, the field of human factors and ergonomics seeks to encourage the well being of all people. The World Health Organization defines the human factors field as:
“examin[ing] the relationship between human beings and the systems with which they interact  by focusing on improving efficiency, creativity, productivity and job satisfaction, with the goal of minimizing errors.“
The WHO’s definition may seem paradoxical to some readers. How can employers increase their businesses’s efficiency without compromising its employees job satisfaction? Or how can an employee encourage outside of the box thinking while limiting employee errors?
It is true that the implementation of these goals can be counterproductive, which is why it is even more important to understand the consequences of manipulating certain environmental factors or systems. Human factors engineers must be cognizant that their goal is to “study…all the factors that make it easier to do…work in the right way” (World Health Organization).
The fact that human factor engineers must study all factors reinforces that the field is extremely broad and multidisciplinary in nature. Human factor engineers do work in medical environments, nuclear power plants, military equipment, and much more. Human factors is so broad in nature because it has applications in any environment in which humans interact with something or someone. Because humans are working in these fields, there will be mistakes made and, as a consequence, the need to minimize human error in order to protect the best interest of human health.
But what’s the difference between Human Factors and Ergonomics?
What causes Human Error?
The defintiion of human error may appear to be straightforward: when a human makes a blatant mistake. For example, an engineer making a miscalculation that leads to the instability of a structure. However, we should not define human error in such a singular manner. Ground Truth Trekking, a nonprofit that aims to protect Alaska’s natural resources through means such as human factors interventions, acknowledges that human error can stem from a multitude of factors:
“- risk-taking philosophies
– engineering miscalculation
– mentally filtering data to fit our expectations
– social dynamics
– political pressure
– the natural difficulty humans have recognizing and responding to non-linear systems”
These factors illustrate that human errors are not always so obvious; rather, they can be poor choices or are only clear to be bad choices in hindsight after an issue arises (Ground Truth Trekking). For example, many people fall victim to placing more emphasis in evidence in favor of their hypothesis and ignoring or wrongfully discrediting evidence that goes against their hypothesis. Although someone may think that they are following the correct path, they may be blind to their biases which then results in human error.
A Case Study in Human Factors
The Teton Dam failure is an excellent example of what human factors aims to solve. Here is the link to the case study and explains extensively why the dam collapsed. In essence, the dam did not collapse because the engineers broke code or standard procedures. Rather, the collapse came from “faulty investigation, disregarding of conflicting information, assumptions about evidence, and the pressures of financial commitment” (Ground Truth Trekking). Thus, political pressure, mentally filtering data to fit our exactions, and groupthink were some of the factors that lead to the breach of the damn. Since no other engineer mentioned a plan if the grouting did not hold, groupthink took away the teams ability to think creatively for unforeseen consequences. The financial restraints of the project and political pressure to complete the project allowed the engineers to mentally fit the data to their expectations when the geologists warned them of the risk of seismic collapse.
I mention this case study in order to not only define issues that human factors attempts to solve or prevent, but also relay the inherent need for human factors in order to minimize disaster.
What are the specializations in Human Factors?
According to the International Ergonomics Association, there are three broad areas human factors can be segmented into with of course further specializations within these segments:
– Physical Ergonomics: looks into human anatomy or physiology in order to minimize chronic or acute injury and productivity
– Cognitive Ergonomics: looks into human emotion and how systems can negatively or positively affect perception, memory, and response
– Organizational Ergonomics: looks how systems that include multiple people can be optimized in order to strengthen relationships, productivity, efficiency, reduce human error and much more
As mentioned before, human factors is an increasingly large field with growing influence and importance as technology continues to expand (i.e. human-computer interaction or AI). In closing, human factors aims to allow machines and systems to better fit humans.
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