A career in ergonomics will suit you if you enjoy studying and improving human efficiency in the workplace

As an ergonomist, you are concerned with the safety and efficiency of equipment, systems and transportation. You'll use scientific information to ensure the health, comfort and protection of the people using them. You may be involved in the design of new products and could work in a range of environments e.g. defence, energy, health and safety, healthcare, IT, manufacturing and transport.

By scientifically studying the relationship between people, environments and equipment, ergonomists use their 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 and may be called a human factors specialist.

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
  • utilise 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 ergonomics graduates range from £18,000 to £25,000.
  • Salaries for experienced ergonomists can reach £30,000 to £60,000.
  • Senior ergonomists can earn £60,000+.

Salaries vary significantly between large industrial companies and universities. Earnings in consultancies are equally variable. If you have an ergonomics degree, in addition to relevant experience from a previous profession, you can earn a higher salary.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Although ergonomists generally work office hours, Monday to Friday, you may be required to do overtime, weekend or shift work, depending on the employer and the project.

What to expect

  • Working environments can differ enormously. However, the work often involves a combination of office or laboratory-based activities and field work or externally-based tasks.
  • Self-employment and freelance work is possible if you have experience in a specific area.
  • There are opportunities in the field to undertake individual research. This usually involves liaising with other freelance ergonomists.
  • You must be prepared to keep up to date with ongoing developments in technology and design.
  • Jobs are available in most areas of the UK but geographic mobility may help you to secure promotion.
  • The work can be stressful because of the demands of the clients and professionals in other fields.
  • The role often involves interacting with a variety of people within a team of professionals and/or working with clients or with individuals in the process of assessing workplace issues.
  • 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

To work as an ergonomist you normally need either an undergraduate or postgraduate degree in ergonomics/human factors.

Courses are accredited by the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors (CIEHF).

There are several ergonomics postgraduate certificate, diploma and Masters courses available either full time, part time or via distance learning. See the CIEHF website for a full list or search for postgraduate courses in ergonomics.

For entry via the postgraduate route, a degree in a relevant subject is usually required. Examples include:

  • anatomy
  • biology/physiological sciences
  • computer science/software engineering
  • engineering, e.g. manufacturing, industrial and mechanical
  • health sciences
  • industrial design
  • kinesiology
  • mathematics/physics
  • medicine
  • operational research
  • physiotherapy/occupational therapy
  • psychology
  • sports science.

Employers look for a high standard of academic qualifications.

Your choice of course may affect the type of areas in which you specialise as a professional ergonomist.

It is possible to start out with an HND in a relevant subject and then, if you can demonstrate your knowledge of the key ergonomics areas, such as psychology, anatomy and physiology, and have four years' experience, you can apply to become a registered member of the CIEHF, which denotes a particular level of competence. However, you would probably have to take a course in order to gain the knowledge (although not necessarily a degree course).

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

Membership of the CIEHF is open to anyone. However, if you are qualified and experienced, you gain entry to the professional register, which is sent out to employers and profiled on the institute's website. Membership can be a useful way of establishing professional contacts.

A significant number of professionals enter ergonomics as a second career and come from a range of backgrounds, including:

  • design and engineering
  • human physiology
  • occupational therapy
  • physiotherapy
  • psychology.

Skills

You will need to have:

  • a good level of numeracy
  • the ability to understand technical concepts
  • an interest in people's behaviour in different situations
  • problem-solving skills
  • a systematic approach to studying people in their work environment and producing research
  • the capacity to work well with people at all levels
  • effective communication and negotiation skills.

Work experience

While pre-entry experience is not required, 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 very useful.

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.

Employers

Ergonomists' knowledge and skills are required in a variety of settings, including:

  • computer consultancies
  • consumer and safety laboratories
  • defence and process companies
  • government bodies
  • manufacturing companies
  • NHS
  • transportation companies
  • UK-based and overseas research institutes
  • universities
  • utility companies.

If you are 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 job vacancies at:

For a specialist recruitment agency providing vacancies for qualified and experienced ergonomists, see the Gold Group.

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

Professional development

Levels of on-the-job training vary greatly due to the broad nature of the field. Many ergonomists gain the core skills and techniques required for particular job areas on undergraduate or postgraduate ergonomics degree courses and industrial placements.

However, each particular area will have its own additional specific training requirements, for example in procedures, systems and in-house regulations.

The extent of on-the-job support available depends on individual employers. You should aim to take responsibility for your own training and development. The CIEHF provides courses and seminars to enable you to develop expertise in specialist areas.

The Institute also supports its members to develop skills and gain registered membership. If you have a degree accredited by the CIEHF, you are eligible to become a graduate member. If you have any other degree you can become an associate member.

Both graduate and associate members can, with enough relevant work experience, become eligible to apply to become a registered member of the CIEHF. Registered members who have a sufficient amount of continuing professional development (CPD) are eligible for chartered status (C.ErgHF MIEHF).

Career prospects

Career development is usually self-driven, although the CIEHF runs a scheme to support the career progression of newly qualified ergonomists.

Graduate members of the CIEHF, who hold an ergonomics degree and have at least three years' experience, can undertake a process of skills development in order to gain registered membership. Under the scheme, individuals keep a log book for a specific period, recording a cross-section of projects, and liaise with a mentor.

Once you become a registered member, you can participate in the Institute's continuing professional development (CPD) scheme.

Registered members with a sufficient amount of CPD are eligible for chartered status (C.ErgHF MIEHF).

Developing specific areas of interest at an early stage and gaining experience in a particular aspect of ergonomics 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.

The technology, equipment, systems and services that people use at work and elsewhere are constantly developing, so you should be prepared to learn and undertake CPD throughout your career.

Changing employer is often an easier way to gain promotion than remaining within the same organisation.

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. Project and line management are other possible avenues.

Becoming actively involved with the CIEHF and getting known within the industry can boost your opportunities for career progression.