Considering human factors: 5 things to think about when designing your process

Humans make errors. It’s in our nature, but by understanding our abilities and limitations and applying these to the design of a workplace, system or process, you can make them as effective, safe and efficient as possible. Easy to say but not always easy to do, and that’s where my role as a Human Factors Advisor comes in.

Human factors (often called ergonomics) is the process of designing workplaces, products and systems so that they best fit the people who use them. The ultimate goal is reducing human error, increasing productivity and enhancing safety and comfort. Most people have heard of ergonomics and think it is something to do with seating or with the design of car controls and it is… but it is so much more. Human factors applies to the design of anything that involves people – workspaces, sports and leisure, health and safety. It is widely used in high risk industries such as aviation and of course high stakes organisations such as healthcare.

We start by considering all the factors that might influence a person’s behaviour including how they think and function physically, how they relate to each other and their environment.  Next we evaluate tasks, jobs, equipment, environments and systems and look to make them more compatible with the needs, capabilities and limitations of staff in order to avoid them working in an uncomfortable, stressful or dangerous way.

Here are my five top tips to think about when you look at your organisation to help improve human factors:

  • People aren’t machines: We are fallible so when investigating adverse events such as serious incidents using the traditional root cause analysis technique, it is also important to supplement this with a human factors element to help identify what impacted on the individuals involved. Therefore, we are recognising that while individual accountability is important there will often be wider ‘systemic’ issues in the lead up to the adverse event. Is equipment provided ‘user friendly’ and have staff been properly trained and recruited?
  • Push the button: Study the interaction between staff and hardware, software, websites and mobile devices to create the best possible user experience. Is it easy to use? Are staff properly trained? If a piece of technology isn’t working, do they need to use it?
  • Differing shapes and sizes: NASA recently didn’t consider human factors fully and had to change its plans for the first all-female spacewalk due to issues with having the correct number of suits in the right sizes. Are the tools your workforce using of the correct size? Consider the fundamentals of anthropometry (measurement of the size and proportions of the human body) when evaluating and improving a work activity.
  • Stamina and repetition: Think about the physical impact of work on the human body. Is it too demanding? For example, midwifery may involve bending, lifting and holding the body in fixed positions for long time periods – what impact might this have? Is there anything you can do to alleviate it?
  • Look around: Take a step back and look at the work environment. Even small things like dust, vibration, temperature and light can have an impact. How are you managing risk in manual handling and physical tasks? When preparing medicines in a pharmacy, what personal protective equipment might you need? How comfortable are your staff, and how might this affect performance?

Richard has recently joined Eastern AHSN, having worked in healthcare since 2004 and studied M.Sc. Ergonomics (Human Factors) at Loughborough University. Richard will be supporting the Eastern and East Midlands Patient Safety Collaboratives in helping them build an understanding of the effects of Human Factors in clinical and non-clinical settings.

To discuss the availability of Human Factors support in your Patient Safety Collaborative workstreams including the delivery of training programmes in our region, please call Richard on 01223 661499 or e-mail richard.goorney@eahsn.org   

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