Human Factors and Ergonomics in Practice: A Forthcoming Practitioner-Focused Book

Ten years ago, I found myself caught between two worlds. I had spent several years in practice in various industries, as an internal consultant in an air traffic service provider and as an external consultant in an international consultancy. Then I moved to academia, and set up as a sole trader on the side. I loved both research and practice (and was intrigued by the cross-over), but found that the two worlds had very different goals, values, resources, constraints, ways of working and methods of communication. Most of the books (and especially journals) that were available to practitioners were written by people in academia. Yet much of the writing on human factors and ergonomics (HFE) did not speak to the worlds that I found myself in as a practitioner, or to many of the issues that seemed to matter in practice.

Chapanis argued that “one of the most difficult tasks for the ergonomist or human factors engineer is to find and identify that very small percentage of information that will really contribute to the solution of whatever problem he may have at hand” (1967, p. 9). Many HFE practitioners will recognise this almost 50 years later. Meister (1999) bluntly stated that researchers and practitioners “see little value in the products of each other’s activities” (p. 223). This seems to overstate things, but it seemed clear to me that there was a gap, probably several gaps, and that the reasons for these were probably many. I initiated some research on the research-practice gap to explore this further, leading to a survey of over 500 HFE practitioners with Amy Chung at UNSW.  Two of the issues that emerged concerned relevance and context.

This wasn’t new. Within the HFE discipline, there has been debate over the years about the applicability of the scientific method, and the dominance of empirical science as a worldview – mirroring a much wider debate on ‘scientism’ (e.g. Sorell, 1994). Moray (1994) highlighted the contextual factors and the diversity in the purpose and systems with which ergonomists work, and stated that “Our discipline is an art not a basic science, and one which only makes sense in the full richness of the social setting in which people work” (p. 529). Wilson (2000) pointed out that one should not talk of HFE being a science but a discipline, and one that blends craft, science and engineering. The craft side of HFE, while a strong focus for practitioners, has received much less attention in the literature.

Looking at the HFE literature, there seemed to be a gap for a text that speaks more directly to practitioners of HFE (specialists or those of related professions), written predominatenly by those embedded in industry, with a recognition of the contextual realities of HFE practice. There are texts on practice and professional issues for other disciplines and professions, often written by practitioners (e.g. Bransetter, 2012; Brookfield, 1995; Corey, et al., 2010; Koller, 2012; Nadler, 2005; Thompson and Thompson, 2008), and across various professions (e.g. Schon, 1991). These books do not give instruction on theory and methodology as such, but rather address ‘life as a practitioner’, including the context, conditions, constraints, challenges and compromises that characterise the real world of practice. A lot of writing on theory and method is what I now call HFE-as-imagined, an idealised version of HFE that strips out much of the mess in the contexts that HFE specialists work with and within, and many of the factors that really make a difference.

In April 2005, at a conference of the (now) Chartered Institute of Human Factors and Ergonomics, I was giving a paper on ‘The Ergonomist as a Skilled Helper‘, which drew from learning in counselling and tried to apply this to HFE and (I subsequently turned my attention to empathy in HFE – a little discussed concept in the field prior to the popularisation of ‘UX’). At the conference, I met Claire Williams (Human Applications, UK), who was doing a PhD on HFE practitioner expertise and competencies. We stayed in touch and some years later decided to try to bring about a book on issues relevant to practitioners. It was impossibly ambitious, but we thought we’d have a go anyway.

The purpose of the book Human Factors and Ergonomics in Practice, to be published by Ashgate later this year, is to add to the knowledge-base on the real practice of HFE, conveying the perspectives and experiences of practitioners and other stakeholders in a variety of industrial sectors, organisational settings and working contexts. The book will blend the extant literature on the nature of practice (including ‘the craft’ and the research application) with reflections from experience, and insights into the achievement (and non-achievement) of the core goals of HFE, namely improved system performance and human wellbeing (Wilson, 2000; Dul et al, 2012).

The book attempts, in some small way, to rebalance the literature with an increased focus on the craft side, as well as the application of engineering and science in real contexts. The key themes of the book, and in some cases, the key market differentiators, are as follows:

  • Experiential: The book recounts real experiences and stories of practitioners and other HFE stakeholders via reflection, narrative, and stories.
  • Multiple perspectives: The book offers multiple perspectives on practice, by utilising many authors from different industries and settings, as well as short commentaries from practitioners and other stakeholders on the topics covered.
  • Systems focus: The authors will consider their work from a systemic perspective, trying to maintain a systems focus and holistic approach, considering the purpose of HFE work, the context, and the interactions.
  • Genuine: The book aims to be honest about HFE as done, rather than just HFE as imagined, discussing the factors that really led to success or failure, the emergent and unforeseen properties of interventions, and the compromises, trade-offs, short-cuts and workarounds that are necessary in practice.
  • Research-practice relationship: The book will deal with the relationship and tension between research and practice, examining the experience of research application in the real world.
  • Reflective of the profession: Authors will consider the lessons learned and not learned by the profession, and the likely future of the profession.
  • Useful: The book aims to help improve practice, and will include practical wisdom from experienced practitioners (perhaps some ‘advice I’d give myself if I were starting over’).

Target audience

The book aims to help:

  • current HFE practitioners to reflect on, challenge and reconceptualise their own practice and how it may be sustained, changed or improved;
  • students to gain an understanding of HFE as done, and put their training into a wider context;
  • allied/colleague practitioners (such as engineers, physiotherapists, occupational health and safety specialists, psychologists) who utilise HFE concepts and methods to put their practice into a broader and more systemic framework of HFE practice and perhaps progress to fuller integration into their work;
  • researchers to gain an understanding of the nature of HFE practice in a variety of industrial domains, organisational settings and working contexts to help focus and direct their research and to identify and specify the practical implications;
  • policy makers to understand some of the practical and systemic issues affecting HFE in policy;
  • customers or clients of HFE services and products to become more active and instrumental in the success of HFE.

Can you help?

If you are an HFE practitioner, or if you work with HFE practitioners in an allied discipline, or are a customer of HFE services, we’d like some reflective comments on some of the issues raised in the chapters. Some of these will be published as ‘practitioner reflections’ (attributed to you) in edited chapters at the end of each Part of the book. If any of the chapters below resonate with you as an HFE practitioner, allied/colleague practitioner, or client, please contact me at steveshorrock (at) gmail (dot) com. Some of the comments will be published in specially edited chapters for each Part of the book.

Outline of the book

Here is an outline of the book as it stands. This might change a little, but not a lot. I’ll update the details over time.


Human Factors and Ergonomics in Practice

Improving system performance and human well-being in the real world

Editors: Steven Shorrock and Claire Williams

Preface

Foreword

Part 1: Reflections on the profession

The first Part of the book takes a broad view of the state of the profession and discipline from various viewpoints, on HFE in practice, academics, and industry. The key questions focus on the progress of the discipline and profession in achieving its aims, including: “where did we come from?”, “where are we now?”, and “where are we going?” The questions are examined from an applied point of view, considering the contribution of HFE in work and life.

Nature of the HFE profession today: IEA Perspective Margo Fraser and David Caple

Lessons from history of HFE practice Patrick Waterson

The nitty-gritty of human factors Erik Hollnagel 

HFE in the media Ron Gantt & Steven Shorrock

Part 2: Fundamental issues for individual practitioners

This part of the book looks at purpose, goals, roles, values, ways of working and other issues for practitioners. These include issues that are often taken for granted and receive little attention in the literature such as ethical issues and integrating research into practice. HFE specialists work in various contexts, as part of consulting teams and regulators, for example. This part also examines the cross-sector issues that HFE practitioners face when working in such contexts. The issues vary markedly between contexts, and include issues associated with selling HFE services, contracting, developing relationships, independence, working with other practitioners, developing a network, building organisational and industry credibility, having influence, etc. The chapters will also aim to discuss some of the contributions to success or failure in each setting.

HFE practitioner roles Steven ShorrockClaire Williams Nigel Heaton

Human factors and the ethics of explaining failure Roel van Winsen and Sidney Dekker

Integrating research into practice Amy Chung, Steven Shorrock & Ann Williamson

The challenges of practice-oriented research Claire Williams & Paul Salmon

The use of HFE methods in practice Matthew Trigg & Richard Scaife

Becoming an HF/E practitioner Andrew Baird, Claire Williams & W. Ian Hamilton

Part 3: Domain-specific issues

This part of the book also summarises some of the key industry sector-specific issues and challenges for practitioners. Working as an HFE practitioner in different industries can be a very different experience and present significant differences in terms of, for instance, the variety of occupations, the predictability of demand, proceduralisation, the degree of automation and variety of technology, the types of risks, the role of regulation, the clients and end-users of HF services, media and political interest, dominant professional groups, international implications, and so on. The challenges and rewards for practitioners are quite different and different skills, knowledge and ways of working that are required. This part aims to compile, compare and summarise views from practitioners and other stakeholders on sector-specific HF issues.

HFE practice in the aviation industry | Jean Paries & Brent Hayward 

HFE practice in the rail industry | Ben O’Flanagan & Graham Seeley 

HFE practice in the oil and gas industry | Ian Randle

HFE practice in healthcare | Ken Catchpole & Shelley Jeffcott

HFE practice in the nuclear industry Clare Pollard

HFE practice in defence | Ben Cook & Ryan Cooper 

HFE practice in construction and demolition | Daniel Hummerdall & Stuart Shirreff 

HFE practice in manufacturing | Fiona Bird & Caroline Elliott

HFE practice in user experience | Lisa Duddington

HFE practice for consumer products | Dan Jenkins

HFE practice in agriculture | Dave O’Neill & Dave Moore 

HFE practice in WebOps | John Allspaw 

HFE practice for accessibility | Ed Chandler & Phil Day 

Selling ‘ergonomic’ products | Guy Osmond 

Human factors in regulation: Views from a former regulator John Wilkinson

Part 4: Communicating about HFE

Part 4 of the book considers issues associated with communicating about HFE, at all levels and in various forms.

Communicating with decision makers and policy makers | Nigel Heaton & Bernie Catterall

Engaging participants in HFE | David Antle & Linda Miller

Writing as an HFE practitioner | Don Harris

HFE practice and social media | Dom Furniss

 Afterword

As the idea for the book was being developed, Prof. John Wilson died. John was PhD supervisor to many (including me) and spent his time between research (University of Nottingham) and practice, for the latter part of his career in the rail industry (Network Rail, UK). He managed to bridge a broad range of HFE and the bridge research and practice in a way that relatively few manage.

Tribute to John Wilson’s contribution to the practice of HFE | Sarah Sharples

References

Bransetter, R. (2012). The School Psychologist’s Survival Guide. Jossey-Bass.

Brookfield, S.D. (1995). Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. Jossey-Bass.

Chapanis, A. (1967). The relevance of laboratory studies to practical situations. Ergonomics, 10 (5), 557–577.

Chung, A.Z.Q. & Shorrock S.T. (2011). The research-practice relationship in ergonomics and human factors – Surveying and bridging the gap. Ergonomics, 54(5), 413–429.

Corey, G., Corey, M.S. & Callanan, P. (2010). Issues and Ethics in the Helping Professions.

Dul, J., Bruder, R., Buckle, P., Carayon, P., Falzon, P., Marras, W.S., Wilson, J.R. & Doelen, B. (2012): A strategy for discipline and profession, Ergonomics, 55(4), 377-395.

Koller, J.A. (2010). On Being a Therapist. Jossey-Bass.

Meister, D. (1999). The history of human factors and ergonomics. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Nadler, D.A. (2005). Consulting to CEOs and Boards. In L.Greiner & F. Poulfelt (Eds). Handbook of management consulting – The Contemporary Consultant: insights from world experts. South-Western: Canada.

Moray, N. (1994). “De Maximis non Curat Lex” or How context reduces science to art in the practice of human factors. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 38th Annual Meeting, pp. 526–530.

Schon, D.A. (1991). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action.

Shorrock, S.T. and Murphy, D.J. (2005). The ergonomist as a skilled helper. In P.D. Bust & P.T. McCabe (Eds.),Contemporary Ergonomics 2005. London: Taylor and Francis, pp. 168-172.

Shorrock, S.T. and Murphy, D.J. (2007). The role of empathy in ergonomics consulting. In P.D. Bust (Ed.),Contemporary Ergonomics 2007. London: Taylor and Francis, pp. 107-112.

Sorell, Y. (1994). Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science. Routledge.

Thompson, S. and Thompson, N. (2008). The Critically Reflective Practitioner. Palgrave Macmillan.

Williams, C. & Haslam, R. (2011) Exploring the knowledge, skills, abilities and other factors of ergonomics advisors. Theoretical Issues in Ergonomics Science, 12 (2), 129 -148.

Wilson, J.R. (2000). Fundamentals of ergonomics in theory and practice. Applied Ergonomics, 31(6), 557–567.

Wilson, J.R. (2014). Fundamentals of systems ergonomics/human factors. Applied Ergonomics, 45, 5-1.

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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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