As the science of human factors becomes a more prominent focus in multiple industries, demand has increased for those with expertise in applying research in human factors to real-world situations. Known as human factors engineering, it’s a career field with an increasing number of jobs working at the heart of how companies organize their businesses.
Human factors have become especially important in healthcare and other fields where health, safety and well-being are crucial to avoiding injuries, illness or death and providing the best possible outcomes. Human factors engineers play an important role in developing the tools, processes and systems that make this possible.
What Is A Human Factors Engineer?
Human factors engineering encompasses:
- The study, theories and body of knowledge that is human factors science.
- The application of that science to the design of work systems, methods and environments.
- The profession itself, which focuses on how individuals and groups function at work.
The science of human factors keeps human behaviors and limitations central, designing systems that promote work health and safety while also focusing on better efficiency and anticipating errors that are likely to occur.
A human factors engineer considers all these (the science and research on human behavior, human abilities and limitations) when designing devices, machines and systems that work well with how humans behave, rather than forcing humans to adapt to an unrealistic design.
What Do Human Factors Engineers Do?
The day-to-day tasks for human factors engineers vary greatly depending on where they work and the types of products or systems they focus on. Sam Curtis is a human factors engineer for a medical device company that designs and manufactures robotic products used for minimally invasive surgical procedures.
As Curtis explains, his job is to “identifying potential errors that a person could make while using our technology to perform surgery.”
He considers all the ways a nurse or surgeon could commit an error while using the equipment.
This is accomplished through user testing, which involves bringing in participants (surgeons and nurses) to get feedback.
“To prepare for user testing, I create a testing protocol, which includes the questions and tasks that a participant will complete when they come in for testing,” Curtis says.
Typical issues can involve misusing a control, such as a button. Curtis and his team then take the feedback and testing results and work to design the devices to eliminate those issues.
Other duties for human factors engineers might include preparing reports or presentations that summarize results of these kinds of useability tests. They also typically work with cross-functional teams on assessing the current state of ergonomics in different departments and recommend changes to improve worker health and safety.
Where Do Human Factors Engineers Work?
“Any place where people interact with technology, you can apply human factors engineering,” says Sam Curtis.
Indeed, human factors engineers can be found in a variety of work settings. The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES) highlights employment opportunities and career paths in industries and sectors that include:
This includes research associates and full professors, working both part-time and full-time, at state and private colleges and universities. They can be found working in a variety of academic disciplines, including human factors psychology, engineering, industrial design, computer science and medicine and the life sciences.
Military and Government Agencies
While many human factors engineers may be furthering research education in academic institutions, others are working in government research laboratories and/or military-related research centers.
These include the National Research Council, NASA, National Academy of Sciences, National Transportation Safety Board, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Federal Aviation Administration, and U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The U.S. Army, Air Force and Navy have research laboratories employing both civilian human factors engineers and those in the military.
Human factors engineering applies to healthcare, transportation and aviation, among other industries. Many human factors engineers work in either research positions or heading up product development teams. Job titles include human factors engineer, ergonomist, safety scientist, and usability (UX) practitioner.
Many human factors engineers also work as independent consultants on a full-time and part-time basis.
Estimated Human Factors Engineer Salary
The human factors engineer salary can vary widely based on the sector—academia, government, private industry—and the field they may be working in.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) categorizes human factors engineers among health and safety engineers, which have a median annual wage of $91,410, as of May 2019. Overall, the BLS projects that job opportunities in “research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences” could increase by 8% between 2019 and 2029, an increase of 4% from previous estimates, because of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.*
The Economic Research Institute reports an annual average salary of $84,414 and projects a salary growth potential of 10% over the next five years for an average of $93,064 by 2026.
The human factors engineer salary can also increase with experience and education. On average, a graduate degree is the highest level of education for those currently working as human factors engineers, with 77% holding at least a master’s, according to the Economic Research Institute.
How Do You Become a Human Factors Engineer?
The fields of ergonomics and human factors engineering draw from different disciplines, and human factors engineers may start with a bachelor’s degree from these areas of study:
- industrial design
- medicine/life sciences
- environmental health and safety
- business administration
- computer science
These can include programs that are multidisciplined or offer specializations (i.e. those in electrical, chemical, mechanical, industrial or aeronautical/astronautical engineering), according to HFES.
A focus on human factors in healthcare can ease the work within complicated healthcare technology and provider systems. Those who aspire to work as human factors engineers in a healthcare setting may look to gain knowledge in the areas of healthcare analytics and health informatics.
Health Informatics and Healthcare Analytics Programs, 100% Online
*National long-term projections may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions and do not guarantee actual job growth. Information provided is not intended to represent a complete list of hiring companies or job titles, and degree program options do not guarantee career or salary outcomes. Students should conduct independent research on specific employment information.