A Day in the Life of a Human Factors Specialist
13th June - By Dr R Roberts
In this section
A couple of months ago, I attended a networking event for undergraduate psychology students at the University of Aberdeen. I was excited to be here as this was my academic home for over seven years. The event was designed to encourage students to network with potential employers. I was attending in my role as a human factors specialist to give advice on how to get into the area. During many interesting conversations, I found that I was answering the same questions: What does a human factors specialist do? What does their day look like? Do you like this job? And, the most frequently asked question – what do you need to get into human factors?
Continuing from previous articles on human factors, I am going to answer these questions with the help of two respected human factors specialists – one in academic life and one in industry.
Amy Irwin is Applied Psychologist currently working as a Lecturer at the University of Aberdeen. She holds a PhD in Psychology (University of Nottingham), a MPhil in Organisational Psychology (Sheffield University) and a MA in Psychology (University of Aberdeen). She specialises in non-technical skills and rudeness at work.
Scott Moffat is a Human Factors Specialist at People Factor Consultants Ltd. He holds a MSc in Ergonomics and Human Factors (University of Nottingham) and a BSc in Applied Social Science (Robert Gordon University). He also has a considerable experience working offshore in the oil and gas industry.
What do you need to get into human factors?
This was without a doubt the most common question I was asked. From my experience, I got into human factors through my third year in undergraduate Psychology degree. I took a module that was run by Prof Rhona Flin and found it so interesting I did my final year project in applied psychology.
But not everyone comes to it from the same path, so what do you need to get into human factors?
For a start, you need to have an interested in and knowledge of psychology “as they are prerequisites for building understanding and future knowledge as you progress in the Human Factors world” Scott said. Commonly this is done through an undergraduate degree in Psychology, Sociology, or Social Sciences.
“It’s good to get some experience in Human Factors relevant research by volunteering as a research assistant or to do an applied thesis project in your final year of study. This doesn't necessarily have to be pure human factors; social and cognitive psychology have a lot of applications - the important thing is to be able to see how your work could be applied in real life.”
Amy also suggested that it would be valuable to get some practice talking with, and even collaborating with companies, to give you some insight into how the industrial and applied world works, to ensure this is the area you want to pursue. Scott agreed with Amy that practice in the field in invaluable. “Working as a Retained Firefighter has allowed me to understand decisions in stressful situations” said Scott. Not everyone can have such exciting work experience, but Scott points out that all experience can be important – “Whilst I was studying I also worked at a special needs home which allowed me to really understand the basic concepts of communication, which I still use to this day.”
What does a day in the life of a human factors specialist look like?
Variety is the spice of life. This is true when working in human factors. One week you can be reading papers, writing reports and attending meetings, and the next week you can be in a high-fidelity drilling simulator assessing experts’ cognition.
But what does the typical day look like in academia compared to working in industry?
“At the moment, my day is divided between marking student papers, communicating with industrial partners about an on-going applied project, and developing future applied research projects in two main areas; non-technical skills and rudeness at work. The balance between teaching, admin and research varies according to the time of year, but I usually engage in an element of each every day.”
“My day to day work tends to revolve around training and everything that comes along with it. I am heavily involved in the developing and facilitating of all of our non-technical skills training courses: from our one-day course which is a basic introduction into situation awareness and decision making to our five-day course which will focus on all the 6 non-technical skills: stress management, communication, situation awareness, decision making, teamwork and leadership. This involves delivering the theory as well as observing candidates in our high-fidelity power distribution simulator.”
What is the best (and worst!) part of being a human factors specialist?
Every job has its ups and downs. I have always been interested the human mind and why people behave the way they do, but I love human factors because it applies this knowledge to solve real world problems. This is something that we all agree on.
“I love to see the application of my work in the field, particularly where it can make a real difference to safety at work. I also enjoy collaborating with people from myriad and different fields, both academic and industrial.”
“The best thing about working in HF has to the variation. One week I could be doing the 5-day course for PFC, the next I could be observing a drill team in another simulator and the next week I could be offshore.”
And what about the worst parts? I can be very difficult to collaborate with people who do have the time to work with you, do not want to work with you or even have you in the room. Scott pointed out that it can be very difficult “when some people say we do not need this ‘mumbo jumbo’ as we have ‘never needed it before’ as this can be frustrating”. Fear not, as Amy say’s “it’s always worth it in the end!”
If you want to more about human factors, there are many friendly and helpful online forums, great books to get you started (Safety at the Sharpe End or Introduction to Human Factors), and more places now offer undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications in human factors.
Feel free to get in touch with any other questions on human factors.
Our aim is to improve efficiency within your work place. We deliberately keep our class sizes small as our training is fully interactive– no endless folders of notes, no clock watching. Our courses are based around you and the work you do every day, making them 100% relevant.