Ergonomists are concerned with the safety and efficiency of equipment, systems and transportation. They use scientific information to ensure the health, comfort and protection of the people using them and, due to the nature of the work, can find themselves in a wide range of environments.
By scientifically studying the relationship between people, environments and equipment, ergonomists can use their findings to improve human interaction with processes and systems.
Types of work
Areas of work include:
- product/equipment design;
- production systems;
- information and advanced technology;
- transport design.
Ergonomists may work in consultancy, research, development or teaching and may be called human factors specialists.
Duties vary widely depending on the area of work, e.g. healthcare, health and safety, transport, the workplace, or the design of new products.
However, activities are always based on ensuring that a system or product meets the needs of the user and will usually include:
- investigating the physical and psychological capabilities and limitations of the human body;
- analysing how people use equipment and machinery;
- undertaking workplace risk assessments;
- assessing work environments and their effect on users;
- utilising assessment results to identify areas for improvement;
- designing practical solutions to implement these improvements;
- creating user manuals to ensure the best use of new systems or products;
- producing reports of findings and recommendations;
- writing proposals and compiling statistical data;
- using detailed knowledge of the human body to improve the design of products, such as cars, office furniture and leisure facilities;
- interviewing individuals and observing them in a particular type of environment, as part of the research process;
- liaising with staff at all levels of an organisation to undertake research;
- visiting a wide range of environments, such as offices, factories, hospitals and oil rigs, in order to assess health and safety standards or to investigate workplace accidents;
- providing advice, information and training to colleagues and clients;
- acting as an expert witness in cases of industrial injury;
- developing a clear understanding of how specific industries and their systems work in a short space of time;
- managing sections of projects;
- presenting to clients, conferences and professional societies;
- identifying opportunities for new work.
- Salaries for new ergonomics graduates typically start at around £20,000.
- Salaries for experienced ergonomists range from £25,000 to £40,000.
- Senior ergonomists can earn £60,000 or more.
- Salaries vary significantly between large industrial companies and universities. Earnings in consultancies are equally variable. Those with an ergonomics degree, in addition to relevant experience from a previous profession, can earn higher salaries.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Although ergonomists generally work office hours, 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, overtime and weekend or shift work may be required 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/externally-based tasks.
- Self-employment/freelance work is possible for those with experience in a specific area.
- There are opportunities in the field to undertake individual research. This usually involves liaising with other freelance ergonomists.
- Because of ongoing developments in technology and design, ergonomists must be prepared to continue learning throughout their careers.
- Jobs are available in most areas of the UK but geographic mobility may help 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 range 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.
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).
The BSc (Hons) Ergonomics (Human Factors Design) is available at Loughborough University. The course is three years full time or four years if you take a year out in industry.
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. Search for postgraduate courses in ergonomics.
For entry via the postgraduate route, a degree in a relevant subject is usually required. Examples include:
- biology/physiological sciences;
- computer science/software engineering;
- engineering, e.g. manufacturing, industrial and mechanical;
- health sciences;
- industrial design;
- operational research;
- physiotherapy/occupational therapy;
- sports science.
A high standard of academic qualifications is usually sought by employers.
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 a 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).
Applicants with a relevant postgraduate qualification will have an advantage, particularly if this is combined with related work experience, specifically in industry.
Membership of the CIEHF is open to anyone, but those who are qualified and experienced 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.
Use projects on degree courses to develop areas of specialty and to create opportunities for holiday work. Sandwich options on degree courses are also very useful.
A valuable way to gain greater insight into the profession is to talk to working ergonomists. Contact the CIEHF for more information about speaking to professionals in the field.
A significant number of professionals enter ergonomics as a second career and come from a range of backgrounds, including:
- occupational therapy;
- human physiology;
- design and engineering.
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.
While pre-entry experience is not required, work in a relevant environment can be useful. Employers usually prefer candidates with some level of industrial experience.
There are currently around 2,500 ergonomists working in the UK, according to the CIEHF.
Ergonomists' knowledge and skills are required in a wide range of settings, including:
- defence and process companies;
- computer consultancies;
- consumer and safety laboratories;
- government bodies;
- major manufacturing companies;
- transportation companies;
- UK-based and overseas research institutes;
- utility companies.
Ergonomists employed by these companies may work as part of a team of professionals, such as designers and health specialists, or as part of a specialist department.
First posts tend to be with established companies across the range of industries, at universities or with one of the larger ergonomics consultancies. After gaining sufficient experience they tend to move in to their 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:
- Applied Ergonomics
- Chartered Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors (CIEHF)
- The Ergonomist - monthly newsletter of the CIEHF.
- National press.
- Websites of the main institutions providing ergonomics degrees.
For a specialist recruitment agency providing vacancies in a range of areas for qualified and experienced ergonomists, see the Gold Group.
Networking and speculative applications are also used to help find positions.
Levels of on-the-job training vary greatly due to the broad nature of the field. Many ergonomists gain the core skills and techniques they require for particular job areas on their undergraduate or postgraduate ergonomics degree.
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. It is recommended that individuals progress their own training and development. A range of courses and seminars to enable experienced ergonomists to develop expertise in specialist areas are provided by the CIEHF.
The Institute also supports the skills development of its members and helps them gain registered membership. Those who have a degree accredited by the CIEHF 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 development is usually self-driven, although a scheme to support the career progression of newly qualified ergonomists is run by the CIEHF.
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 ergonomists become registered members, they can participate in the institute's continuing professional development (CPD) scheme.
Registered members who have a sufficient amount of CPD are eligible for chartered status (C.ErgHF MIEHF).
Try developing specific areas of interest at an early stage and gaining experience in a particular aspect of ergonomics, as this can help progression and 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 and ergonomists must continue to learn and undertake CPD throughout their careers.
Changing employer is often an easier way to gain promotion than remaining within the same organisation.
Many ergonomists move on to freelance consultancy work. There are a variety of research opportunities within universities offering ergonomics degree courses and 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 opportunities for career progression.