How did you find out about ergonomics?
I discovered ergonomics first informally, then formally. I grew up in a family business with a strong work ethic, and my Dad always tried to instil in me and my brothers the most efficient way of completing tasks. Without realising it (or appreciating it!), I was having my first lessons in work design. In secondary school, I took a GCSE in Design and Communication. For one of my coursework projects, I chose to design an adjustable desk. I sourced some 'anthropometric data' (probably from myself!) to determine the relevant design characteristics. It was a good hands-on introduction to some of the challenges of designing things for human use. On finishing secondary school, I I took A Levels in psychology, business and communication, before embarking on a BSc Applied Psychology at Liverpool John Moores University, which was superb. Throughout my degree, I was particularly interested in cognitive and social psychology but I retained an interest in work and industry. At this point, I was interested in both advertising psychology and ergonomics & human factors. In my final year I chose courses in human factors in design, human-computer interaction, industrial psychology, and human relations at work. I found the lectures both fascinating and useful. These courses set me up perfectly for a career in ergonomics, and I went on to complete an Masters and part-time PhD.
Why a career in ergonomics?
Ergonomics combines my interests in industry, design and psychology and embodies humanistic values that are very important to me. Fundamentally, I believe that work, and the systems, procedures and processes that are involved, should improve the human condition, and therefore should be designed with people's needs, wants, abilities and limitations as a central focus - not a side issue. Ergonomics has great potential to safeguard life, property and the environment, to improve health, and to increase satisfaction and personal fulfilment, while also improving productivity and efficiency. I am very thankful now that I chose to apply myself to actually helping people, rather than advertising to them.
What’s been the most interesting project you’ve worked on?
There have been many, but my first research and development projects at National Air Traffic Services, as an intern then employee, were aimed at understanding human error in air traffic control. I examined several years' of ATC incident data, interviewed controllers, conducted observations during simulations and produced a taxonomy of how and why errors in ATC occurred. I, and others, have subsequently applied the taxonomy (called TRACEr) to many incidents involving loss of separation between aircraft, and to predict potential errors associated with new systems.
What’s been the most challenging work you’ve done?
My most challenging project involved human factors, safety assurance and training for the new Heathrow control tower - a large and complex project. The new control tower is in a different position on the airfield and is twice the height of the old tower, with completely different working positions and with completely new technology - all introduced simultaneously. My role involved leading the human factors safety assurance for the transition to operations, assessing performance readiness during training in the simulator and the new tower, and helping to resolve some very difficult human factors design issues, as well as more general management consultancy. The challenges were more both technical and socio-political, but the biggest challenges lay in change management, both in terms of staff and management. This illustrated to me the importance of the ergonomist as a ‘skilled helper’ who combines technical skills and knowledge with industry understanding and ‘soft skills’. The processes of helping and the factors influencing these processes are equally or more important in determining whether an ergonomics intervention leads to lasting change.
What do you do on a typical day?
There really isn't a typical day. I have worked in industry and academia, in a variety of settings including a large air traffic control organisation, a consultancy organisation, a university and as a sole trader. My roles have all involved ergonomics and human factors but have varied widely. As a practitioner, a ‘typical day’ has involved observing controller behaviour in an air traffic control tower (real and simulator), interviewing air traffic controllers about incidents, assessing control rooms and simulators, and helping to design user interfaces such as touch screen displays of flight data, as well as presenting findings to management, and sharing information with colleagues. As a researcher and educator, a ‘typical day’ may involve collecting data, analysing data, writing research papers, or preparing or delivering lectures and training. Ergonomics is such a diverse field, and if you maintain a broad approach, no two projects will ever be the same.
What do you find most satisfying about your work?
Three things: it’s interesting, it involves working with people, and it makes a difference! Ergonomics is, in itself, interesting and engaging. It blends science, engineering and craft, drawing from our own discipline and from other disciplines, such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, linguistics, physiology, anatomy, design, engineering, and management science. At some point or other, a lot of what I learned at university has been put into use in some way. But it doesn’t end there - being an ergonomist involves lifelong learning and stretching oneself constantly. It also involves working with people, for people. It is essentially participatory and I usually prefer to be seen as a skilled helper rather than as an expert. With the right approach, an ergonomist can be a very effective bridge between different groups within an organisation, such as operators at the ‘sharp end’, and senior management at the ‘blunt end’. Ultimately, I’m in this career to make a difference, particularly to help safeguard life and improve conditions for people at work. Knowing that my work contributes to this aim is very satisfying.