One of the clearest ways to delineate a discipline is by its unique technology. At its recent workshop, the HFES Strategic Planning Task Force noted, as have others internationally, that the technology of human factors/ergonomics is human-system interface technology. Thus, the discipline of human factors can be defined as the development and application of human-system interface technology.
Human-system interface technology deals with the interfaces between humans and the other system components, including hardware, software, environments, jobs, and organizational structures and processes. Like the technology of other design-related disciplines, it includes specifications, guidelines, methods, and tools. As noted by the Strategic Planning Task Force, we use our discipline’s technology for improving the quality of life, including health, safety, comfort, usability, and productivity. As a science we study human capabilities, limitations, and other characteristics for the purpose of developing human-system interface technology. As a practice, we apply human-system interface technology to the analysis, design, evaluation, standardization, and control of systems. It is this technology that clearly defines us as a unique, stand-alone discipline, that identifies who we are, what we do, and what we offer for the betterment of society.
Although they may come from a variety of professional backgrounds, such as psychology, engineering, safety, the rehabilitation professions, or medicine, it is their professional education and training in human-system interface technology that qualifies persons as human factors/ergonomics professionals. Indeed, the discipline needs both the breadth and richness of these professional backgrounds as well as the education and training in the unique technology of human factors/ergonomics.
Human factors/ergonomics professionals have long recognized the tremendous potential of our discipline for improving people’s health, safety, and comfort and both human and system productivity. Indeed, through the application of our unique human-system interface technology, we have the potential to truly make a difference in the quality of life for virtually all peoples on this globe. In fact, I know of no profession where so small a group of professionals has such tremendous potential for truly making a difference.
In light of our potential, why is it, then, that more organizations, with their strong need to obtain employee commitment, reduce expenses, and increase productivity, are not banging down our doors for help, or creating human factors/ergonomics positions far beyond our capacity to fill them? Why is it that federal and state agencies are not pushing for legislation to ensure that human factors/ ergonomics factors are systematically considered in the design of products for human use and work environments for employees? Why is it that both industry associations and members of Congress sometimes view us as simply adding an additional expense burden and, thus, increasing the costs of production and thereby decreasing competitiveness? In response to these questions, from my experience, at least four contributing reasons immediately come to mind.
First, some of these individuals and organizations have been exposed to bad ergonomics – or what, in a recent article on this topic, Ian Chong (1996) labels “voodoo ergonomics” – either in the form of products or work environments that are professed to be ergonomically designed but are not, or in which the so-called ergonomics was done by incompetent persons. This, indeed, is a concern, particularly when persons lacking professional training pass themselves off as ergonomists or human factors professionals or tout their services as a panacea for almost anything. It is one of the major reasons that both establishing educational standards for professional education in human factors/ergonomics and professional certification have become top priority issues for the International Ergonomics Association and, indeed, for many national human factors/ergonomics societies and governmental groups, such as the European Union.
Another reason, well known to us, is that “everyone is an operator” (Mallett, 1995). Everyone “operates” systems on a daily basis, such as an automobile, computer, television, and telephone; thus, it is very easy to naively assume from our operator experience that human factors is nothing more than “common sense.” Most experienced ergonomists have their own personal list of “common sense” engineering design decisions that have resulted in serious accidents, fatalities, or just plain poor usability. Buy me a beer and I’ll be glad to tell you some of my personal ergonomics “war stories.” I also would refer you to Steve Casey’s book, Set Phasers on Stun (Santa Barbara, CA: Aegean; ISBN 0-9636178-7-7 hc).
Third, I believe we sometimes expect organizational decision makers to proactively support human factors/ergonomics simply because it is the right thing to do. Like God, mother, and apple pie, it is hard to argue against doing anything that may better the human condition, and so that alone should be a compelling argument for actively supporting the use of our discipline. In reality, managers have to be able to justify any investment in terms of its concrete benefits to the organization – to the organization’s ability to be competitive and survive. That something “is the right thing to do” is, by itself, an excellent but decidedly insufficient reason for managers actually doing it.
Finally, and perhaps most important, as a group, we have done a poor job of documenting and advertising the cost-benefits of good ergonomics – of getting the word out that most often, good ergonomics is good economics. In fact, that the ergonomics of economics is the economics of ergonomics.
As one attempt to rectify this situation, I want to share with you a broad spectrum of ergonomics applications that my predecessor as HFES president, Tom Eggemeier, and I have collected from within the United States and elsewhere, in which the costs and economic benefits were documented.