It's likely you'll need a degree in ergonomics, human factors or a related subject to start invesigating the physical and psychological capabilities of the human body

As an ergonomist, also known as a human factors specialist, you're concerned with the safety and efficiency of equipment, systems and transportation - ensuring the health, comfort and protection of users with scientific research.

You may be involved in the design of new products and could work in a range of environments, such as defence, energy, health and safety, healthcare, IT, manufacturing and transport.

By scientifically studying the relationship between people, environments and equipment, you'll use your findings to improve human interaction with processes and systems.

Types of work

Areas of work include:

  • information and advanced technology
  • product/equipment design
  • production systems
  • transport design.

You may work in consultancy, research, development or teaching.

Responsibilities

As an ergonomist, you'll need to:

  • investigate the physical and psychological capabilities and limitations of the human body
  • analyse how people use equipment and machinery
  • undertake workplace risk assessments
  • assess work environments and their effect on users
  • use assessment results to identify areas for improvement
  • design practical solutions to implement these improvements
  • create user manuals to ensure the best use of new systems or products
  • produce reports of findings and recommendations
  • write proposals and compile statistical data
  • use detailed knowledge of the human body to improve the design of products such as cars, office furniture and leisure facilities
  • interview individuals and observe them in a particular type of environment, as part of the research process
  • liaise with staff at all levels of an organisation to undertake research
  • visit a range of environments, such as offices, factories, hospitals and oil rigs, in order to assess health and safety standards or to investigate workplace accidents
  • provide advice, information and training to colleagues and clients
  • act as an expert witness in cases of industrial injury
  • develop a clear understanding of how specific industries and their systems work in a short space of time
  • manage sections of projects
  • present to clients, conferences and professional societies
  • identify opportunities for new work.

Salary

  • Salaries for new ergonomists typically range from around £19,000 to £27,000.
  • Senior ergonomists can earn in the region of £35,000 to £65,000.
  • At the highest levels, you can earn in excess of £65,000.

Salaries vary depending on the sector you work in, your experience and qualifications, location and type of employer. For example, salaries can vary significantly between large industrial companies and the public sector. Earnings in consultancies are equally variable.

Additional benefits may include a pension, private medical insurance and profit share.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Your working hours depend on the sector you work in and the particular project. You may work typical office hours, Monday to Friday, although some roles will require evening, weekend or shift work.

Flexible working is a possibility with some employers.

What to expect

  • Although working environments can differ, the work often involves a combination of office or laboratory-based activities and field work or externally-based tasks. This means you could be working outside in all weathers, working nights or working away from home.
  • Jobs are available in most areas of the UK but geographic mobility may help you to secure promotion. Self-employment and freelance work is possible if you have experience in a specific area.
  • The role often involves working as part of a multidisciplinary team including engineers, designers, psychologists, IT or healthcare professionals and/or working with clients or with individuals in the process of assessing workplace issues.
  • You must be prepared to keep up to date with ongoing developments in technology and design.
  • The amount of travel within a working day, absence from home at night and overseas work or travel varies according to the focus of the role.

Qualifications

Employers look for a high standard of academic qualifications and you'll typically need an undergraduate degree in ergonomics/human factors or a related degree such as psychology, engineering or design. Ideally, you'll have studied modules on ergonomics as part of your degree.

It's also possible to take a postgraduate course in ergonomics. Your choice of course may affect the type of areas in which you specialise as a professional ergonomist. Some courses focus on, for example, transport or health. You'll typically need a degree relevant to ergonomics to get a place on a course. Relevant subjects include:

  • engineering
  • health sciences
  • human physiology
  • industrial design
  • occupational therapy
  • physiotherapy
  • psychology.

For a list of accredited courses, see the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors (CIEHF). Check with course providers for exact entry requirements.

You'll be at an advantage if you have a relevant postgraduate qualification combined with related work experience in industry.

You can also move into ergonomics as a second career. Useful backgrounds include:

  • energy
  • defence
  • design and engineering
  • healthcare
  • human physiology and sport
  • occupational therapy
  • physiotherapy
  • psychology.

Student membership of the CIEHF is open to all students interested in ergonomics, no matter what degree you're studying for, and is useful for networking, events and support.

Many employers ask for membership of the CIEHF and/or British Psychological Society (BPS) as a prerequisite.

Skills

You'll need to have:

  • excellent oral and written communication skills
  • strong listening skills
  • a good level of numeracy
  • the ability to understand technical concepts
  • an interest in and understanding of people's behaviour in different situations
  • the ability to work well in a team and independently
  • organisation and problem-solving skills
  • a systematic approach to studying people in their work environment and producing research
  • a practical and common-sense approach to work
  • project management skills
  • negotiation skills.

Work experience

While pre-entry experience is not always essential, employers prefer candidates with some level of industrial experience.

Use your degree course projects to develop areas of specialty and to create opportunities for holiday work. Sandwich options on degree courses are also useful and can help you get experience and make contacts.

You can gain greater insight into the profession through talking to working ergonomists. Contact the CIEHF for more information about speaking to professionals in the field and find out if it's possible to work shadow someone for the day.

Employers

Ergonomists are employed by a wide range of public and private sector organisations, such as:

  • automotive companies
  • consumer and safety laboratories
  • defence and process companies
  • government bodies
  • hospitals
  • IT consultancies
  • manufacturing companies
  • nuclear companies
  • transportation companies, e.g. rail and aviation
  • UK-based and overseas research institutes
  • universities and research bodies
  • utility companies, such as oil and gas.

If you're employed in these areas, you may work as part of a team of professionals, such as designers and health specialists, or as part of a specialist department.

Your first post is likely to be with an established company across the range of industries, at a university or at one of the larger ergonomics consultancies. After gaining sufficient experience you could move on to your own consultancy work.

General ergonomics consultancies offer a range of services to clients, such as health and safety, and hazard analysis.

Other companies offer more specialist support and require ergonomists with a greater level of experience and sector knowledge. Areas may include computer hardware and software ergonomics, human reliability assessment and product design.

Look for vacancies at:

  • CIEHF Jobs
  • The Ergonomist - monthly newsletter of the CIEHF.

You can also check websites of the main institutions providing ergonomics degrees.

Specialist recruitment agencies, such as Gold Group, provide vacancies for qualified and experienced ergonomists.

Networking and speculative applications are also useful to help find positions. If you're thinking of setting up your own consultancy or going freelance once you've gained experience, see self-employment.

Professional development

Levels of on-the-job training vary greatly due to the broad nature of the field. However, each particular area will have its own specific training requirements, for example in procedures, systems and in-house regulations.

You should take responsibility for your own training and development throughout your career. The CIEHF provides a range of courses and seminars to enable you to develop expertise in specialist areas.

Membership of the CIEHF is important and provides the opportunity to network with other professionals. If you have a degree accredited by the CIEHF, you're eligible to become a graduate member. If you have any other degree, you can become an associate member. Membership of the BPS is also useful for some areas of work. They also provide a range of training, development and support activities.

Both graduate and associate members of the CIEHF can apply to become a Registered Member of the CIEHF. You'll need to have a set amount of relevant work experience and a record of your continuing professional development (CPD) activities.

Registered members are eligible for chartered status as a Chartered Ergonomist and Human Factors Specialist (CErgHF). In order to remain chartered, you'll need to keep a record of your CPD activities each year. It usually takes three to four years after graduation to gain chartered status.

It's also possible to do a Masters (if you don't already have one) or undertake research at PhD level in your relevant area of expertise.

Career prospects

Ergonomics (also called human factors) is well established in many sectors, including defence and rail, and is making a strong impact in others such as manufacturing and healthcare. There are relatively few qualified professionals in this discipline so career prospects are very good.

With experience you can move into senior ergonomist and line management roles with more responsibility for projects and people.

Developing specific areas of interest at an early stage can help you progress your career and gain entry into specialist consultancies. Developing specialised interests at degree/placement level and working with a mentor can support this process.

Becoming actively involved with the CIEHF and getting known within the industry can boost your opportunities for career progression. Some employers prefer applicants with chartered ergonomist status, and so gaining chartership with the CIEHF may also help your career prospects.

You may need to move companies to progress your career, depending on the size and nature of the company you work for.

Many ergonomists or human factors specialists move on to freelance consultancy work. Some move into research, either within universities offering ergonomics degree courses or with other organisations such as government bodies.