Monday, 30 April 2018

Book of the month: Human Factors & Ergonomics in Practice (by Steven Shorrock & Claire Williams (eds))

(Conflict of interest: I have had a number of chats with Steven Shorrock, as well as email & twitter correspondence, and ran a 1-day Human Factors for Surgeons course with him. I have tried to give an objective review.)

About the editors
Steven Shorrock BSc, MSc, PhD (@StevenShorrock) is a chartered ergonomist and human factors specialist and a chartered psychologist. He is the European safety culture program leader at EUROCONTROL and adjunct senior lecturer at the School of Aviation, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia.

Claire Williams BSc, MSc, PhD (@claire_dr) is a chartered ergonomist and human factors specialist. She is a senior HF/E consultant at Human Applications and visiting research fellow in HF and behaviour change at Derby University, Derby, UK.

About the contributors

There are 45 other contributors, including internationally-recognised names such as Ken Catchpole, Sidney Dekker, Erik Hollnagel and Martin Bromiley. The contributors are based in North America, Europe and Australia. As befits the title, they are mainly involved in applied, practical human factors ergonomics.

Who should read this book?

This book should be on the bookshelf (actual or digital) of all those who are involved in HF/E work. This includes the "HF/E curious" with no formal qualifications in HF/E, experienced chartered ergonomists, as well as those who are purchasing the skills of HF/E practitioners. The book will also resonate with simulation-based educators with a number of themes such as safety culture and HF/E in healthcare.

In summary

The book is divided into 4 parts (31 chapters), as well as a foreword and afterword.
Part 1, "Reflections on the Profession", considers the definition of HF/E, as well as its history and current practice. 
Part 2, "Fundamental Issues for Practitioners", looks at some of roles HF/E specialists have to adopt and the challenges they face. These challenges include carrying out research when the employer is looking for a practical solution or the information gathered could be sensitive or embarrassing.
Part 3, "Domain-specific issues", details the musings of specialists currently engaged in a number of different domains. These include "obvious" sectors such as aviation, oil and gas exploration, and the nuclear industry, as well as less well-known sectors such as web engineering, agriculture, and the construction and demolition industry.
Part 4, "Communicating about Human Factors and Ergonomics", explains how to engage with executives as well as those at the sharp end.

I haven't got the time to read 413 pages...

Each Part has its own summary to give you an idea about what is going to be discussed and, as should be the norm with edited books, every chapter also starts with a single paragraph practitioner summary. You can therefore decide which chapters are most likely to be of benefit to you (although see "What's good about this book?" below)

What's good about this book?

There is a degree of soul-searching here not often seen in textbooks. For example, in Chapter 5 "Human Factors and the Ethics of Explaining Failure”, van Winsen and Dekker refer to the case of Karl Lilgert. Karl was jailed after the ferry he was in charge of, the “Queen of the North”, sank in 2006. In their verdict, the Supreme Court of British Columbia stated: “Maintaining situational awareness at all times and in all circumstances is key to proper navigation.” Situational awareness (SA) is a construct which HF/E practitioners (and others) use to explain human behavior. When terms such as SA are (mis)used by the legal profession then how much responsibility do HF/E practitioners bear? Similar arguments around the use of terms can be made regarding the use of “human error”. Although HF/E practitioners might know what they mean when they say “x% of accidents are due to human error”, the media and public often do not (p.87).

The book also reflects on the tension between the HF/E practitioners who work in research/academia and those who work in industry, as well as the place for those who are not formally qualified in HF/E. As with all professions, each group has different priorities, ways of working and cultures. In Chapter 1, Shorrock and Williams argue for a middle ground in which there is “collaboration among those with expertise in theory, method, and aspects of context… and those with deep expertise in their jobs, working environments, and industry” (p.14).

Hollnagel’s chapter on “The Nitty-Gritty of Human Factors” (p.45-62) is a good read. He talks about a pragmatic approach to human factors and counsels caution when using constructs such as “short term memory”. He advises us to remember that these constructs have been created to explain some observations but that they are constructs, with limitations.

Although healthcare workers might not be immediately drawn to a chapter entitled “Becoming a Human Factors/Ergonomics Practitioner” (Chapter 12), this chapter is worth a read for those of us involved in simulation and education. This chapter explores a number of challenges faced by those who want to certify as HF/E practitioners, as well as those who run the courses which lead to certification. In particular, there is a sense that the courses provide graduates with knowledge but perhaps not the skills required to enter the workplace. A similar problem is seen in healthcare where nurses graduate with the skills required to do the job from the first day whereas doctors often have a significant amount of “on the job” learning to do. This inability to perform Miller's "shows how" and "does" is something that we can use simulation-based education to address.

Healthcare practitioners and HF/E workers involved in healthcare must read Chapter 13 “Human Factors and Ergonomics Practice in Healthcare”. This details some of the issues that affect HF/E work in healthcare including the proliferation of checklists and the “try harder” mentality. Shelly Jeffcott (@drjeffcott) and Ken Catchpole (@KenCatchpole) are rightly optimistic about the future of HF/E in the healthcare setting. Simulation-based educators will also be pleased to see reference to simulation in design and procurement (p.189)

What's bad about this book?

The authors explain why we should be adopting a Safety-II approach, spend more time looking at the system than at the person and appreciate that the system is complex and intractable. However, there is a dearth of information about what to practically do. When an avoidable death occurs in healthcare (or other industries) there is little chance that bereaved families would be satisfied with explanations of complex systems, etc. It would be useful for the reader of “HF/E in Practice” to be given an introduction to current methods in HF/E and their uses.

Final thoughts

This is the best book I have read on Human Factors/Ergonomics. Its focus on the applied, practical aspects of HF/E make it relevant to front-line workers as well managers and researchers. If the General Medical Council is serious about wanting to involve HF/E professionals in its work then council members would do well to read this book.

Further reading:

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