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April 19, 2007

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A rose by any other name

Trevor Evans attempts to dispel some of the myths and misunderstandings about the discipline of ergonomics, and to convey how human factors professionals and ergonomists can address existing and new health and safety challenges in the workplace.

Mention ergonomics and, often as not, the immediate response is “comfy chairs”, or “workstation set-up”. Without neglecting the importance of these traditional areas of ergonomics practice, this limited understanding acts as a smokescreen, obscuring the fact that the application of human factors thinking, analysis, and integration is making a considerable difference across the safety industry and is neglected at the peril of those responsible for safety performance.

Much of the pioneering work in human factors in the UK has been carried out by the Ministry of Defence, with the result that the discipline has undergone a major transformation over the past 18 years. The need has increased for professionals to work as an integral part of the design or management team, and to apply their knowledge and experience directly to problem-solving tasks. The response to this change has been to evolve a new form of practice that more successfully integrates the concerns of human factors and ergonomics into systems engineering. This is known as Human Factors Integration, or HFI, in the UK, and as Human Systems Integration in the USA.

While it is still developing, HFI is the generally accepted best-practice model for the application of human factors to systems engineering, as well as to safety management. It successfully draws together the traditional concerns of interface design and physical ergonomics, with the more esoteric considerations to do with human reliability, workload assessment, job design, and competence assurance. Most simply put, HFI provides the means to deliver assurance that the interaction between people and equipment will not result in any degradation of health, safety, or performance, and that the workforce will be appropriate to operational demands, and will be capable and competent to perform its assigned tasks.

The practice of HFI has been organised under a set of technical headings or domains. These can vary slightly in response to the particular needs of different industries, but they are typically expressed in the following way:

– Human engineering: This domain is concerned with the improvement and optimisation of the interface between people and equipment to ensure that the design is compatible with the physical and cognitive capabilities of users. It focuses on the designed properties of equipment interfaces, workstations, workspaces, and the work environment.

– System safety: This is the process of applying human reliability methods to define the risk arising from human error in all foreseeable operating conditions. The goal is to identify, assess and control (through elimination or mitigation) all sources of human failure that have the potential to affect process safety, or influence the risk of major accidents.

– Health and safety: The process of identifying all hazards, i.e. physical, biomechanical, chemical, biological, and psychological, that could affect workers’ health and well-being. This includes the traditional focus on the control of repetitive activities, or postural strain that could lead to musculoskeletal disorders.

– Manpower: This domain is concerned with specifying the number of men and women required to work within a system to meet the anticipated operational demands and to avoid excessive workload. Early specification of the workforce is important, both for the estimation of operational costs, and to provide assurance for regulators that effective safety management will not be undermined by insufficient manpower.

– Personnel: This is concerned with defining the aptitudes, experience and other relevant characteristics, including body size and strength, necessary to achieve optimum performance in operational jobs. Outputs also include job definitions and operating procedures. Sometimes this domain also takes account of important cultural aspects, such as the attitudes, perceptions and beliefs held by the workforce.

– Training: This is to do with specifying the knowledge and skills needed to work on the system, and to define the education, instruction, and training needed to develop sufficient standards of competence.

There are also various process models that describe the sequence of human factors technical activities that are relevant to system design and safety management, and how these can be implemented. Some of these models are discussed later.

The benefits of application

Experience has shown that the HFI process facilitates the timely application of human factors to systems engineering and safety management activities at a stage when major benefits can be gained for minimal costs. Take, for example, the case of the design of an offshore platform for use in the UK sector. A key goal of the project was to reduce the overall area of the platform decking, as this would save on the total tonnage of steel to be erected and shipped to the operating location, with a valuable attendant cost reduction. Critical to achieving this goal was an early demonstration that it would be possible to perform a range of routine maintenance and inspection tasks in the smaller workspaces that would result between equipment.

Human factors specialists modelled the tasks using CAD and including anthropometrically appropriate scaled and posed human figures (See Figure 1 above). The modelling work examined a range of maintenance activities and included assessment of the space required for movement and the manipulation of tools and test equipment. The result was an early and convincing demonstration of the feasibility of the proposed design solution. So, the project was able to progress towards achieving its objective and to realising a major development cost saving from only a small investment in this study.

Another example, this time from the defence industry, illustrates what can be achieved by assessing operator workload at an early stage in the system’s development. The case relates to a project to deliver a large military aircraft. Key to the new development was an early demonstration of the feasibility of reducing the number of people required to work on the flight deck. The new system would include automation technology that would reduce the total number of people required. However, this was so critical to the overall objectives for the project that some assurance of the feasibility of this change had to be provided at the earliest stages as part of sanctioning the project to continue.

Here, too, human factors professionals played a key role in passing this test. On the basis of an analysis of the future flight-deck tasks, and using predictive workload methods, it was possible to calculate that the proposed new job roles, including the use of automation, would be feasible in foreseeable mission scenarios. An added benefit was that the human factors study also indicated that a simpler automation solution, involving a slightly different allocation of responsibilities between people and systems, would be sufficient.

These and numerous other examples illustrate the benefits to be gained from human factors integration. Recent experience shows that the typical advantages can include:

– Fewer injuries and lost-time accidents;

– Improved system reliability and maintainability;

– Reduced costs for training, maintenance and late modifications;

– Trouble-free commissioning and start-up;

– Greater operating efficiency;

– A reduction in the number of errors and the risk of accidents; and

– Improved staff retention, safety culture and motivation.

Taken together, the scope of consideration of HFI can provide specifications and evidence in support of:

– Demonstrating the feasibility of the human role in the operation of the system and its safety management culture;

– Ensuring the usability of the supporting systems, procedures and equipment interfaces; and

– Assuring the reliability of human performance for sustained safety and efficiency over time.

Major industry practices and standards

The Control of Major Accident Hazards (COMAH) Regulations have been in force since April 1999 and were amended in June 2005. The HSE states that the main aim of the Regulations is “to prevent and mitigate the effects of those major accidents involving dangerous substances, such as chlorine, liquefied petroleum gas, explosives, and arsenic pentoxide, which can cause serious damage/harm to people and/or the environment”.

Following the June 2005 amendments all COMAH sites, whether top or lower tier, are required to prepare a major accident prevention policy (MAPP). Human factors are seen as a significant part of major accident causation, and the management of human factors risks as an essential part of major accident control. As such, the MAPP must acknowledge the sources of human factors risk, their contribution to accident risk, and the strategies required to manage them.

The HSE’s human factors team has identified a list of the top ten human factors topics; the MAPP should therefore identify and analyse risks in the following areas:

– Organisational change – Planning and managing organisational change (especially to define clear roles and responsibilities, if it is planned to make significant changes to an established plant and the operation of other assets);

– Procedures – Development and compliance with safety-critical operational procedures, including emergency response plans;

– Staffing levels and workload – Specification of staffing levels and demonstration of workload feasibility in all anticipated normal, degraded and upset modes;

– Fatigue from shift work and overtime – Management of fatigue from shift work and overtime with respect to good practice;

– Training and competence – Specification of skills and training requirements, and competence assurance;

– Communications – Planning for effective communications and supervision;

– Organisational culture – Establishment and support for a safe organisational culture;

– Risk assessment – Integration of human factors into risk assessment and investigations;

– Human factors in design – Integration of human factors in the design of operational and maintenance interfaces, especially control and alarm systems; and

– Maintenance error – Management of operational and maintenance errors.

These are all compatible with human factors integration and so are readily addressed through an appropriately tailored HFI plan for safety management. Recent experience has also demonstrated that a modified scope of HFI considerations can also be included in the Pre-Construction COMAH Safety Report.

Many of the UK’s largest engineering and regulatory organisations have already established HFI policies and standards. For instance, the Defence Procurement Agency (DPA) has long since had in place a HFI process in support of its major systems procurement activities.

DPA’s HFI process (see Figure 2) establishes key objectives for human factors maturity at each stage of the procurement lifecycle. These objectives are tied to established project outputs and have been carefully coordinated with the activities across other related disciplines, such as systems engineering, safety, ILS, and training.

London Underground, too, has mandated HFI as part of engineering projects. Its standard defines roles, responsibilities and accountabilities for progressing human factors activities in support of engineering design work.

Network Rail has defined a standard and guidance on integrating ergonomics within engineering projects. This is fully integrated with the company’s investment management process (GRIP) and establishes human factors objectives for each key stage. In particular, it emphasises the role that workload assessment has in support of option evaluation and selection. Ergonomics approval is established as an explicit requirement at key stages within the process.

In the oil and gas sector, Shell has for some time established a design and engineering practice for human factors engineering, while BP is currently putting in place its own HFI process to address the requirements and interactions between people, plant and process. This is explicitly tied to key milestones within its engineering projects’ process. Special interest groups within the process industry are also contributing to the establishment of good practice for HFI. For instance, the Fire and Blast Interest Group (FABIG) has published a Technical Note (Number 9), which describes human factors methods and techniques and how they can be applied in support of design and safety management activities.

Meeting the challenge

All these examples represent important aspects of human factors/ergonomics, all with major safety implications, yet none limited to what the ‘man in the street’ would understand by the term ‘ergonomics’. The message we need to get across is simple: the human factors discipline today has much more to offer than the traditionally narrow focus on physical ergonomics. Current practitioners come equipped with a broader capability to support a whole range of systems engineering and safety management activities. The UK Ergonomics Society is changing to reflect this and to better serve its members and the wider community. As CEO I aim to steer these changes through, such that the Society will deliver a clearer statement of the capability of its members, and new CPD measures will improve the differentiation between specialists and generalists so that those procuring their services can be assured of the best fit to their needs.


This article has benefited greatly from early conversations with a range of Society members – in particular, Ian Hamilton, technical director of Human Engineering.

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