National Ergonomics Month 2021: HFE History & Resource Guide

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The Evolution of Human Factors and Ergonomics

The modern era of human factors and ergonomics began in World War II when the federal government identified the need for the improved performance of humans using complex systems such as military aircraft, particularly in challenging conditions.

The field has evolved significantly since then and is now applied to architecture, transportation, computers, consumer products, energy systems, medical devices, manufacturing, and much more. As technology is increasingly woven into our daily lives, HFE is a consideration in nearly every element of system use and design.

While the average consumer may find the effects of proper HFE to be subtle, the field has had several major successes in recent years. In 2005, HFE personnel with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) implemented a training program for pilots of the Mitsubishi MU-2 turboprop airplane and reduced the accident rate by 80 percent. In 2011, HFE research led the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) to roll out high-intensity activated crosswalks that reduced crashes by 29 percent and pedestrian-vehicle crashes by 69 percent.

Going forward, HFE has been identified as a critical component of national security, with implications in data science and cybersecurity.

Ergonomics also plays an important role in a society with a newly sedentary workforce: in 1900, over 40 percent of the American workforce was in agriculture; by 2000, the total was under 2 percent. The average worker now spends long periods of time in seated positions, and this comes with health implications that include a higher risk of musculoskeletal disorders, cardiovascular disease, and obesity.

Today’s HFE professionals are helping to design workplaces that benefit, rather than harm, the people within them. And with more people working remotely than ever before, the concept of a workplace now extends out of the office to include someone’s personal laptop, phone, chair, and home.

Advocacy Issues in Human Factors and Ergonomics

One of the largest points of advocacy for the HFE community is to raise awareness around just how important human factors and ergonomics considerations are in an increasingly technology-driven world. When HFE is done right, it often goes unnoticed, but when it’s not applied properly, the results can be disastrous: in 2018 and 2019, two Boeing 737 MAX planes crashed, resulting in 347 deaths. Investigations found the cause of the crashes to be a design flaw in the planes’ automated Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation Systems (MCAS).

In testimony given to the US House of Representatives, Former Chief Scientist of the US Air Force, Mica R. Endsley, PhD, underlined how a lack of proper HFE considerations in the design of autonomous systems led to both crashes. Dr. Endsley also detailed how implementing HFE strategies could avoid future disasters. These strategies included making alarms unambiguous, reducing the number of cognitive demands on a user, defaulting to user control, and providing greater transparency in automation.

In many ways, Dr. Endsley was reiterating what those in the HFE community have known for years. Over two decades earlier, in 1996, an HFE team with the FAA conducted a detailed study of automation-related aviation accidents. They found that problems weren’t limited to a particular aircraft type or any specific manufacturer, but instead were systemic and related to the design of automated interfaces and the relationship between those interfaces and the people using them.

Education and Certification in Human Factors and Ergonomics

Human factors and ergonomics is a wide, multidisciplinary field that touches several different areas of study. But very few degree programs exist that are specifically targeted at HFE at the undergraduate level.

Aspiring HFE professionals can earn their bachelor’s degree in engineering, psychology, design, or one of several other areas. If possible, students should seek out coursework on subjects such as statistics, process analysis, psychology, system design, and environmental factors.

At the graduate level, more degree programs specifically cater to human factors and ergonomics. These master’s programs are often housed within organizational psychology, UX design departments, or industrial and manufacturing engineering departments. While a master’s degree is not a requirement to work in this area, it can help graduates sharpen their HFE acumen, especially if they’ve come from a non-traditional undergraduate background.

Although it’s not a requirement, many HFE professionals go on to pursue board certification through the Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics (BCPE). In a large pool of talent, board certification distinguishes those who hold it as having met the highest standards of the HFE profession. In order to be eligible, applicants must have either a bachelor’s degree (including HFE-relevant coursework) and three years of work experience, or a PhD and two years of work experience.

Once deemed eligible, applicants must submit samples of their work for review and then pass a three-hour certification exam. Applicants may certify at either the associate or professional level.

For those working in related fields who wish to bolster their understanding of human factors and ergonomics, there are professional certificate programs focused specifically on HFE. These programs can range in depth and length, and they cater to different industries and career stages.

Standalone courses are available, too, and more programs in ancillary fields are dedicating portions of their curriculum to HFE. As the scale and scope of technology and automation increase, and as systems get more complex and interdependent, the study and application of human factors and ergonomics will become increasingly important.

Resources for National Ergonomics Month

The study of human factors and ergonomics brings together several different scientific disciplines and requires the collaboration of professionals across the world. To learn more about where the field is today, and where it’s going, check out some of the resources below.

  • Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES): Founded in 1957, HFES is the largest scientific organization for human factors and ergonomics professionals. As a federated society of IEA, they have 4,600 members in over 58 countries. Approximately 15 percent of its members are students.
  • Human Factors: The flagship journal of HFES, Human Factors publishes peer-reviewed scientific studies in human factors and ergonomics that focus on the relationship between people and technologies, tools, environments, and systems.
  • International Ergonomics Association (IEA): An association of federated societies worldwide, IEA seeks to advance ergonomics science and practice, expanding its scope of applications and contributions to society to improve the quality of life.
  • Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics (BCPE): BCPE is an independent, non-profit organization providing professional certification for ergonomic practitioners demonstrating expertise and a comprehensive understanding of ergonomics and human factors. They offer several professional certification credential programs.

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