What is Human Factors and Ergonomics?
Eric F. Shaver, Ph.D. & Curt C. Braun, Ph.D.
Human factors and ergonomics focuses on designing the world to better accommodate people. As a unique scientific discipline, human factors and ergonomics systematically applies the knowledge of human abilities and limitations to the design of systems with the goal of optimizing the interaction between people and other system elements to enhance safety, performance, and satisfaction.
Human factors are relevant anywhere people work with systems, whether they are social or technical in nature. The breadth of these sociotechnical systems include situations and circumstances where people interact with other system elements including:
Artifacts (e.g., tools, machines, products, software, etc.)
Legal (e.g., regulations, enforcement, etc.) and political
To learn more about each of these elements, the interested reader should consult the writings of Carayon (2006), Carayon and Smith (2000), Karwowski (2000), Moray (2000), and Wilson (2000). Within the last 100 years, a broad spectrum of industries have benefitted by deliberately focusing on how people interact with systems. These industries include:
The gamut of work human factors and ergonomics practitioners perform is great and has been discussed in greater detail by Karwowski (2005; 2006) and Salvendy (2006).
What is Human Factors and Ergonomics?
A Brief History of HF and E
Born of necessity and collaboration
In the United States, the discipline of human factors and ergonomics, is generally considered to have originated during World War II (Wickens & Hollands, 2000), although advances that contributed to its formation can be traced to the turn of the 20th century. Prior to World War II, the focus was “designing the human to fit the machine” (i.e., trial and error), instead of designing machines to fit the human (p. 3). This can be found in Frederick Taylor’s work studying selection, training, workrest schedules, and time & motion studies of industrial workers (Taylor, 1911), and through the extension of his time & motions studies, by Frank and Lillian Gilbreth (Gilbreth, 1914; Gilbreth & Gilbreth, 1917).
Many of the human factors and ergonomic advances originated out of military necessity. With the start of World War I, the first conflict to employ the newly invented airplane in combat, the need arose for methods to rapidly select and train qualified pilots. This prompted the development of aviation psychology and the beginning of aeromedical research. Although advances were made in this time period, according to Meister (1999), the impetus for developing the discipline wasn’t met due to a lack of “critical mass of technology and personnel as there was in World War II” (p. 149). The time between World War I and World War II saw a reduction in research, although some achievements were made. Aeromedical research continued to see advances in laboratories built at Brooks Air Force Base in Texas and Wright Field in Ohio. These laboratories performed studies that focused on further identifying the characteristics of successful pilots, and determining what effects environmental stressors had on flight performance. Also, the basics of anthropometry (the study of human body measurements) were applied to the design of airplanes in this time period. In the private sector, automobile driving behavioral research was also conducted (Forbes, 1939). The outbreak of World War II, and the two inherent needs it generated, formed the catalyst for developing the human factors and ergonomics discipline. First, the need to mobilize and employ vast numbers of men and women made it...
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