Ergonomist

The Job and What's Involved

Ergonomists work to achieve the best possible fit between people and the products they use, or the environments in which they work. They are sometimes known as human factors professionals.

Ergonomists apply scientific principles to achieve productivity, health, safety, comfort and well-being, whether at work, in the home or at leisure. Their efforts contribute to the design of new products, services and environments.

The work involves a wide range of activities. For example, an ergonomist may:

  • Design computers, software, hand tools or other equipment, so that they are easy to use.
  • Design tasks and jobs so that they are effective, taking account of human needs such as rest breaks and job satisfaction.
  • Design equipment and workstations to improve working posture, and avoid the risk of damage such as repetitive strain injury.
  • Design 'safety-critical' environments, such as military systems or air traffic control stations.
  • Design home environments to meet the needs of older and disabled people.
  • Plan the design of cars, to build in safety features and improve the way they run.
  • Design information tools, such as signs and handbooks, so that they are easily understood.
  • Research the causes of error or accident in different situations, such as operating theatres, and suggest ways to prevent them recurring.
  • Work as part of a 'new products' team for a multinational manufacturer.

Tasks may include:

  • Visiting sites to make inspections.
  • Observing people as they work or test products, and interviewing them.
  • Assessing risk factors.
  • Carrying out experimental trials.
  • Compiling and analysing data.
  • Designing practical solutions.
  • Writing reports or user manuals.
  • Advising and training colleagues or clients.
  • Evaluating prototypes.

Ergonomists need to consider all aspects of a situation. For instance, in designing a product, they need to take into account a range of factors. This may include the varying shape and size of the human body, the differing levels of ability of individuals using the product, and the potential for misinterpretation or error.

The job involves applying three main types of science:

Anatomy - improving the physical fit between people and the objects they use.

Physiology - addressing the body's requirements for energy and the effects of environmental factors, such as noise, lighting and temperature.

Psychology - looking at how people process information and make decisions, taking into account the influence of behavioural motivations.

Ergonomists work very closely with people in related professions, such as design and production engineers, IT specialists, industrial physicians, health and safety practitioners and health professionals.

Ergonomists' working hours can vary greatly from one week to another. Due to the fact that they are likely to spend part of their time on site, they don't tend to work typical office hours. Extra hours may be required to meet project deadlines, depending on the employer.

The work may take place in offices, on clients' premises and in other workplaces. A driving licence is useful.

Salaries start from around £18,000 a year. Ergonomists with experience may earn between £25,000 and £40,000. Senior ergonomists can earn £50,000 or more.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Ergonomists are employed by various organisations, including manufacturing, defence and utilities firms. They work in areas such as product design, health and safety, or research and development.

Some government departments, NHS trusts and research institutions also employ ergonomists. A growing number of specialist consultancy companies offer advice to clients.

Opportunities are increasing, but competition can still be keen. Experience in industry is attractive to employers. Some ergonomics degrees offer placements as part of the course. The Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (IEHF) also runs a work experience scheme, Opening Doors, which links student and graduate members with employers.

Vacancies may be advertised via the IEHF website, through recruitment agencies, and in national and local press.

Education and Training

There are two ways to qualify as a professional ergonomist:

  • Successful completion of the BSc in ergonomics at Loughborough University.
  • Graduating in a related subject - such as engineering, design, psychology, biology or medicine, followed by a postgraduate course in ergonomics.

Details of recognised courses are on the IEHF website.

The BSc degree course can take three or four years, depending on whether students opt for a year-long work placement. Degree entry normally requires a minimum of five GCSE's (A*-C) with two at A level, or equivalent qualifications. Successful candidates for a degree in ergonomics usually have three A levels, or two A levels and two AS levels. Useful subjects include mathematics, physics, biology and psychology. Qualifications such as a BTEC National Diploma or the International Baccalaureate are also accepted.

Competition for courses can be keen. Relevant work experience, paid or voluntary, is useful.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Ergonomics courses cover fundamental topics such as:

- Psychology, anatomy and physiology
- Work organisation and industrial systems
- Statistics and applied mathematics
- Design and evaluation methods
- Information technology

Employers offer on-the-job training, which may include short courses or supervised experience.

Ergonomists need to stay up to date with constantly changing technology and developments in the field. The IEHF runs a continuing professional development (CPD) scheme to help its members identify and meet their learning needs.

Graduate members of the IEHF can progress to registered membership once they have gained experience.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

Ergonomists need to be:

  • Analytical and creative.
  • Good at grasping technical concepts.
  • Able to see the whole picture, and view things from the perspective of others.
  • Attentive to detail.
  • Good at problem solving.
  • Effective at working as part of a team.
  • Skilled communicators, in person and in writing.
  • Comfortable working with IT.
  • Good with numbers, especially statistics.

Your Long Term Prospects

Ergonomists may choose to specialise in a particular field, such as manual handling, computer software, or the design of safety-critical systems.

Some offer their services on a freelance basis, or set up their own consultancies.

It may be possible to move into teaching or training. There are opportunities to work abroad, for instance to improve the effectiveness of technology used in developing countries.

Get Further Information

Ergonomics and Safety Research Institute,
Loughborough University,
Loughborough LE11 3TU
Tel: 01509 226900
Website: www.lboro.ac.uk/research

The Institute of Ergonomics and
Human Factors (IEHF), Elms Court,
Elms Grove, Loughborough LE11 1RG
Tel: 01509 234904
Websites: www.ergonomics.org.uk and www.ergonomics4schools.com

Loughborough University (Department of Ergonomics),
Loughborough, Leicestershire LE11 3TU
Tel: 01509 223036
Website: www.lboro.ac.uk/departments/hu

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