Ergonomics (or human factors) is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance. (IEA, 2018)
This definition – accepted by human factors and ergonomics (HF/E) societies worldwide – emphasises that HF/E is a discipline and profession. A discipline is “a branch of knowledge, typically one studied in higher education”. A profession is “a paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification” (Oxford dictionaries).
Practitioners of ergonomics and ergonomists contribute to the design and evaluation of tasks, jobs, products, environments and systems in order to make them compatible with the needs, abilities and limitations of people. (IEA, 2018)
This contribution tends to be made by HF/E practitioners in two ways:
- as an external human factors consultant/trainer
- as an in-house human factors specialist (a typical job description is here).
But how do we assess whether a practitioner is a ‘suitably qualified and experienced person’ (SQEP)?
This is an important question because there is so much at stake for system performance and human well-being, but it is not straightforward to answer. In this post, I provide five questions that will help. The questions are for reflection and discussion. They are not definitive. In considering these questions, the point is not necessary to answer “yes’ to every question. Some will be more relevant than others, and there will be exceptions. But especially where the answer to two or more questions is “no”, there should be careful consideration as to why this is the case.
The emphasis of this post is not on those who fulfill specific HF/E roles in-house (e.g., HF/E in medical simulation). In such cases, internal practitioners with HF/E-related roles may well have education and experience in a specific area of HF/E, and use this in their role. But they would probably not describe themselves as ‘HF/E specialists’ (just as I have education in counselling but would not call myself a counsellor). This post does not cover these in-house practitioners, though they may wish to consider the questions and what support they might need.
Rather, the post concerns paid-for HF/E consultancy and training, and also employment as an HF/E specialist, where one has to abide by ethical professional standards in the practice of HF/E.
Do they have a recognised qualification in HF/E?
There are several academic programmes in HF/E in the UK, USA, and other countries, which you can find via the relevant Society or Association in your country. Some of these programmes will be accredited by your national HF/E Society (the Centre for Registration of European Ergonomists offers is a guide to such courses in Europe).
An HF/E qualification gives reassurance that the person has undertaken an approved programme of study in HF/E, which addresses the relevant competencies (e.g., the CIEHF Professional Competency Guidance, or the Requirements for Registration of European Ergonomists in Europe). (But note that some qualifying courses are no longer offered and so may not be listed.)
Others academic programmes will not be accredited, but will offer a substantial component of HF/E as part of a mixed programme, or as a substantial part of (e.g., a major in) a programme in experimental psychology, industrial engineering, systems engineering, patient safety, occupational health and safety, etc. This is especially true in the USA), which only a small minority of the programmes listed on the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society website are accredited by the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. Most Human Factors practitioners (HF being the dominant term used in the US) tend to have academic qualifications in psychology.
For specialist external HF/E consultancy and commercial HF/E training support, a university degree in HF/E (or closely related discipline, as listed by the HFES in the USA) will usually be necessary, and perhaps a higher postgraduate (e.g., Doctorate) degree in very specific circumstances (e.g., expert witness work).
2. Accreditation and Membership
Do they have an appropriate level of accreditation or membership of an HF/E related professional organisation?
Unlike some professions, the terms ‘human factors specialist’ or ‘ergonomist’ are not legally protected, or regulated (e.g., by the Health and Social Care Professions Council in the UK), and so are not regulated with titles that are legally protected (e.g. Registered Occupational Psychologist, Registered Dietitian, Registered Physiotherapist).
However, HF/E is subject to accreditation (e.g., registration, certification, and chartership) in many countries (e.g., UK, USA, Canada, Australia, NZ, and Europe as a whole). So perhaps the easiest way to have confidence in the competency of an HF/E consultancy, training provider, or individual practitioner is to check for accreditation. This varies throughout different countries. In the UK, the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors provides various accreditations via Chartership, which is conferred to those members who fulfil certain criteria. This includes “having a high level of qualification and experience and being able to demonstrate continuing professional development”. Additionally, different grades of membership of the CIEHF – Fellow, Registered Member, Graduate Member, Technical Member – reflect competency, proficiency and experience.
Member and consultancy directories of HF/E Societies and Associations are available to help. For instance, Members of the HFES can be seen here. Chartered Members of the CIEHF can be seen here. Registered Consultancies that are accredited by the CIEHF can be seen here. You can find other directories of individuals and organisations via the relevant Society or Association in your country. (Note that ‘Associate’ or ‘Affiliate’ Membership is, in most cases, available to anyone and indicates interest and commitment – since all members have to abide by the Code of Conduct – but does not provide assurance of qualifications or experience. Therefore a minimum membership grade for paid support should typically be Graduate or Technical Member.)
In some cases, those who identify as ‘human factors specialists’ will have accreditation via other professional organisations. Typically, these relate to psychology and engineering. Some human factors specialists will be Chartered Psychologists in the UK. (There are other organisations relating to psychology and human factors, often in specific sectors, but these are not recognised by the International Ergonomics Association, which is the umbrella organisation for Human Factors and Ergonomics worldwide. These other organisations also sometimes require members to purchase the organisations’ own training for accreditation, which raises questions that are beyond the scope of this post.) The point is that many who are accredited via another route (e.g., Chartered Psychologist or Chartered Engineer) may well be competent HF/E practitioners, but perhaps for specific aspects of HF/E and not in the whole score of HF/E, and may have a different perspective (e.g., more aligned with psychology) and different approach (e.g., more cognitive-behavioural, social-organisational).
Accreditation will require that the person undertakes appropriate continued professional development, and submits evidence of this. The is important, but difficult for buyers of consultancy and training services to assess. Accreditation and membership removes some of that burden, because the Society does this as a requirement of the person’s membership.
3. Code of Ethics
Do they abide by a code of ethical conduct from an HF/E-related society or association?
This issue is covered by Accreditation above, but it its worth considering specifically because it is so important. A person offering HF/E consultancy or training services who is a member of an IEA Federated Society will have to abide by the Code of Conduct of that Society. The person should be aware of the Code. In any case, the Code (e.g. the CIEHF Code of Conduct) will cover such ethical standards, such as:
- working within limits of competence
- representation and claims of effectiveness
- respect for evidence
- considerations of religion, gender, race, age, nationality, class, politics or extraneous factors.
Professional societies of other disciplines and professions (e.g., psychology, engineering, health and safety) will also have codes of ethical conduct, and while these will not reference ergonomics, they will refer to similar sorts of issues mentioned above, and so working within competence would normally be formally recognised as an ethical issue.
This is an important question to ask anyone offering HF/E services and training, or seeking a job as an HF/E specialist.
If the person is not operating under the Code of Conduct of a professional organisation, then the protections available are limited to those under the law.
Do they have experience in the HF/E work and in the domain of interest?
The question here is whether the person has relevant experience in:
- the kind of HF/E work (e.g., interface design, fatigue assessment, human error identification, cognitive work analysis, manual handing assessment), and
- the sector of application (e.g., manufacturing, oil and gas, aviation, healthcare).
The first is the more important of the two, since HF/E – more than many other disciplines and professions – applies across sectors. HF/E practitioners tend to spend time in several sectors in their career. However, sector knowledge is important and HF/E specialists with a deep knowledge of one sector will have a greater understanding of the stakeholders, activities, procedures, technologies, regulations, cultures, etc. So at a micro level of application (e.g., the design of display elements or manual handling), much in HF/E crosses sectors. But at a macro level (e.g., the integration of HF/E throughout an organisation), this is not the case. When it comes to training others in aspects of HF/E (e.g., short courses), experience in the sector is a huge advantage, if not essential.
If the HF/E specialist offering consultancy or training services is accredited, then issues will be covered by the Code of Conduct or Ethics of their HF/E Society or Association, and the person will have to abide the relevant requirements (it is the focus of several items of the CIEHF Code of Conduct).
5. Social recognition
Is the person recognised as an HF/E specialist by other qualified HF/E specialists?
It can be hard to know if a person is suitably qualified and experienced, though answering ‘yes’ to the above will suggest that the person is. But there will be occasions when people fall outside of one or more of the criteria above, but where HF/E colleagues and associated would say that the person is an HF/E specialist. This will tend to involve those who specialise in a specific aspect of HF/E, but perhaps do not call themselves human factors specialists or ergonomists (and perhaps use other terms, such as UX designer, interaction designer, etc), and who are not a member of an HF/E Society or Association (e.g., a Technical Member of the CEIHF). Such people may well use HF/E theory and methods appropriately, and may even be an recognised expert in the specialism. In this case, social recognition by experienced HF/E specialists will give a good indication.
To sum up, here are the five criteria and questions that apply to paid-for human factors and ergonomics (HF/E) consultancy and training support and employment, that may help with reflection and discussion.
1. Qualification – Do they have a recognised qualification in HF/E?
2. Accreditation – Do they have an appropriate level of membership of an HF/E related professional organisation?
3. Code of Ethics – Do they abide by a code of ethical conduct from an HF/E related society or association?
4. Experience – Do they have experience in the HF/E work and the domain of interest?
5. Social recognition – Is the person recognised as an HF/E specialist by other qualified HF/E specialists?
The aim of these criteria and questions is to ensure that professional standards – including ethical standards – are met. The criteria and questions are frames above in the context of HF/E, but in fact they apply to any professions, such as psychology, dietetics, or physiotherapy. Proper consideration of the criteria and questions should help to protect organisations, individuals, and the integrity of the profession.
Education and application is discussed practically (in the context of aviation, but applicable more generally), in:
Hawkins, F. H. (1987). Human factors in flight.. Gower Technical Press, pp. 326-341.