Human Factors in Civil Engineering Design and Construction

Human factors or ergonomics is understood to be a body of knowledge that deals with the interaction of human beings with systems and devices taking into cognizance information from physiological and psychological characteristics. Human factors engineering can be seen as a process, as a body of knowledge, and/or as a discipline. The primary aim of ergonomics is to minimise human error, reduce risks, enhance safety, and improve productivity when a human being is interacting with a system or using a device. While this aspect of engineering is well studied in the field of mechanical/industrial/production engineering, it has not received significant attention in civil engineering designs.


In civil engineering and architecture, human beings interact with a building and the facilities provided in it. This also comes to bear in the usage of infrastructures such as bridges, walk ways, ramps, parks, and other public infrastructures designed for human use. It is therefore very important that the spaces and facilities in a building and infrastructures be optimised so that they will offer safety, comfort, and good experience to the end user – an aspect different from structural design.

Construction site safety and productivity of workers also comes to mind when we talk of ergonomics in civil engineering. This relates to the provision of adequate man space for working, having good work environment, optimised placement of scaffolds and platforms, motivating workers, lifting of weights, operation of construction machines etc. Human factor has been attributed as the cause of major construction accidents.

Apart from the aspects that are usually taken care of by mechanical and software engineers in the design of machines and tools, civil engineers should also watch out for the outcome of their own designs by adopting a human factor approach. In ergonomics, it is understood that engineers or designers should not rely on logic, intuition, or common sense in developing how humans interact with systems, but should use rigourous scientific methods. Human-system mismatches should be approached using methods that are well developed in behavioural sciences.

For instance, the image above shows a typical walkway design, and a completely different user experience. This aspect of design cannot be gotten right without ergonomics. In another instance, if pedestrian bridges are poorly positioned, humans will prefer to cross the busy highway instead of making use of it, thereby exposing themselves to avoidable hazards. This type of information can therefore inform the design of walkways in streets such that it flows naturally to the pedestrian bridge without the user feeling that his time is being wasted. Therefore human performance monitoring, behaviour, and user experiences observed in many engineering designs should be developed into a framework that will be part of civil engineering designs.

The major fields of research in human factors engineering are identified as physical, cognitive, and organisational. Physical ergonomics has to do with anatomy, physiological, and bio-mechanical characteristics relating with human beings and physical activities. Cognitive ergonomics is concerned with mental processes, such as perception, memory, reasoning, and motor response, as they affect interactions among humans and other elements of a system, while organisation ergonomics has to do with the optimization of socio-technical systems, including their organizational structures, policies, and processes. All these should be incorporated into the framework for design of public infrastructures.


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