Like many of you, I recently went to see a movie about human factors. You read that first sentence twice didn’t you? You may not have even heard the phrase while you were engaged with the story, but the words “human factors” were actually uttered, read straight from the script. The movie “Sully” was about the story of Flight 1549 and what took place following engine failure. I won’t spoil the movie if you haven’t seen it, but human capabilities, and the simulation of them, play an interesting role in the investigation of Captain Sullenberger’s heroic landing on the Hudson River in New York. When a decision needs to be made, the human brain requires a certain amount of time to evaluate options and determine the most appropriate course of action. Not just Sully’s, but every human brain.
To give you another example, I spent the holiday weekend in Muskoka with my family, and as usual, the traffic was horrible. Whenever I need to drive through the city, I am reminded of how human factors plays a role, or ought to, in the placement of traffic signs. I have never been able to understand why the lane markers over four lanes on the highway can’t have four arrows, one for each lane. When I’m driving along and I know I am approaching my exit, I watch for cues to change to the appropriate lane for my exit. If there are four lanes, I would greatly appreciate four tidy arrows, installed directly over the lanes, giving me timely cues to move to the far left or right lane. Instead, when I glance up to find only two or three arrows, I need to pause and interpret, at exactly the time when I’d like to be able to make a split-second decision.
Note that, when ergonomists are certified, we have the option to call ourselves “Certified Professional Ergonomists” or “Certified Human Factors Professionals”. The terms human factors and ergonomics are used somewhat interchangeably, although most in the profession tend to associate human factors with cognitive demands, and ergonomics with physical demands. These fields overlap considerably. The design and placement of road signs to allow drivers to make timely, safe, correct decisions would typically fall under the domain of “human factors”. The lumbar support that enables the driver to get through Toronto without a backache would be implemented by someone concerned with “ergonomics”.
Most of our clients seek our advice on issues relating to the fit of workplaces to accommodate the size and strength of workers. The approach to design is the same in ergonomics and human factors – design the task, job, workstation, tool, or object weight within a safe margin of all worker’s capabilities, and everyone will make the right decision, and perform well and safely!