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Human factors are the science of people at work. Being primarily concerned with the understanding of human capabilities, the study of human factors allows engineers and managers to apply this knowledge to the design of equipment, tools, systems, and processes of work. Human factors can use input from many disciplines, such as design and engineering, and is often regarded as a mix of engineering and psychology. Human factors are often seen as an important field that managers and engineers should understand as it aids in enhancing safety and reducing errors in the organisation.
Why is it important?
Human factors are important because it helps make work more efficient, effective and safe. Human involvement can introduce hazards into engineered systems. The controls we employ to protect us against other hazards often rely on human performance. Thus, by implementing human factors into the design and analysis process, it allows the plant or equipment and procedures to be designed with the user in mind, taking account of human capabilities and limitations so people work in tandem and safely with technology.
Conversely, the lack of human factors may mean equipment or work processes can be taxing for employees. This decreases productivity and increases the rates for error, risks of injury, illnesses and accidents. If procedures and instructions are not designed around human capabilities, employees may start to adopt dangerous workarounds to get the job done, which lead to a greater number of incidents or accidents in the future.
Applying human factors aims to get the best out of human capabilities by taking account of their weaknesses and strengths when designing equipment/technology and processes. It also allows the human to perform and work in a safety environment that would not hinder performance.
Applications of Human Factor Engineering to improve safety
Now that we understand the importance of human factors, there several tools and techniques which are commonly used to address safety issues. The following lists 4 different application methods which organisations can adopt or adapt based on their needs.
- Usability testing
- Forcing Functions
- Resiliency efforts
Human factors engineers test new systems and equipment under real-world conditions as much as possible, to identify potential problems and unintended consequences of new technology. One prominent example of the clinical applicability of usability testing involves electronic medical records and computerized provider order entry (CPOE). A recent book discussed a serious medication overdose that occurred in part due to confusing displays in the institution’s CPOE system—a vivid example of how failing to use human factors engineering principles in user interface design can potentially harm patients.
Apart from clinical application, usability testing is also essential for identifying workarounds. Workarounds frequently arise because of flawed or poorly designed systems that increase the time necessary for workers to complete a task. As a result, frontline personnel work around the system in order to get work done efficiently. Hence with human factors implemented into the process design, workarounds can be avoided, and tasks can be completed without any safety breaches or hindrances.
One other application of human factors would be forcing functions. Forcing functions is an aspect of a design that prevents an unintended action from being performed or allows its performance only if a specific action is performed first.
For example, automobiles are now designed so that the driver cannot shift into reverse without first putting his or her foot on the brake pedal. Forcing functions need not involve device design. Hence, with forcing functions in place, users are guided to perform the next appropriate action or decision when faced with a sudden halt. A constraint makes it hard to do the wrong thing, but a forcing function makes it impossible. Hence, human factors implemented as a form of forcing functions prevents us from performing a dangerous task when tiredness or oversight clouds our perception and judgement.
An axiom of human factors engineering is that equipment and processes should be standardized whenever possible. This increases reliability, improve information flow, and minimize cross-training needs. Standardizing equipment across engineering plants is one basic example, but standardized processes are increasingly being implemented as safety measures. Additionally, the use of handbooks for engineers can also be used to ensure that assembly teams have a standardised procedure to follow when working.
The widening use of checklists is also a means of ensuring that safety steps are performed in the correct order has its roots in human factors engineering principles. Standardisation contributes to efficiency in communication; when it creates common ground among the parties, it allows a dense, compact, encoding of complex ideas, and supports communication by omission. In addition, standardisation is highly valuable in supporting coordination of action across disparate groups whose mutual communication may be undependable.
Given that unexpected events are likely to occur, attention needs to be given to their detection and mitigation before they worsen. Rather than focus on error and design efforts to preclude it, resiliency approaches tap into the dynamic aspects of risk management, exploring how organizations anticipate and adapt to changing conditions and recover from system anomalies.
It presupposes that human errors and machine failures will likely occur, and a more useful effort should be placed on means to anticipate disturbances and be able to recover and restore the system to the original state or, if need be, some acceptable state that is different but still safe. Building on insights from high-reliability organizations, complex adaptive systems, and resourceful providers at the point of care, resilience is viewed as a critical system property, reflecting the organization’s capacity to bounce back in the face of continuing pressures and challenges when the margins of safety have become thin.
To find out more about human factors and how companies and engineers can better understand these complex new concepts, do read our other blog below or consider signing up for our course!
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