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    Dr Susan Whalley-Lloyd, Senior Lecturer in Human Factors/Ergonomics at Staffordshire University, discusses how the learning and research opportunities evolving from the coronavirus pandemic will add to our human factors knowledge base and gives us a unique opportunity to achieve new research in human factors and patient safety.


    Currently, as I work from home developing materials for our new PgCert and MSc ‘Human Factors for Patient Safety’ course, I am also, as are many others, watching our current pandemic unfold and reflecting on how this emphasises the importance of such a course for those working within the health and social care sectors.

    We are living in uncertain times, which for most people is stressful and worrying for many different underlying reasons: loss of income, loss of a job, fear of contracting the illness and the lottery of outcomes, living in isolation or living in crowded homes 24/7, reduced opportunity to exercise, concern for children and other family members and friends, fear of what comes next… to name just a few.  As a human factors professional, this comes as no surprise since our job is always to consider the range of human responses and human characteristics in order to identify to what extent it is possible to support this range; and this is indeed happening. 

    For those with mobile phones and internet access, the virtual world is rapidly expanding with new and newly found apps to connect extended families and friends, to undertake virtual meetings, online lessons and assessments, access to art and museums, research opportunities, theatre performances, online exercise classes and increased opportunities to shop. For those without this access the difference is stark.  

    Let’s turn our attention to these apps; someone first has to have the idea and check that there are people out there who would be interested, then there is the need to design the app, and in such a way that we want to use them and can use them. To do this is dependent upon considering the user, i.e. us humans – this is achieved by integrating user-centred design (UX design) and human factors (ergonomics). Turning our attention back to the health and social care sector, we need to consider human factors when assessing the myriad of health apps out there and the increasing use of apps to support our health and social care – from prompting individuals to take their medication to monitoring our health or providing health advice.  

    So what else are we seeing as this pandemic embraces us all? Information is constant, we are truly a connected global society, from daily ministerial briefings to news reports and social media. This provides very public and graphical representations of our human responses – intellectual, emotional, behavioural and physical. For example, we see numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths, graphs and charts showing where these are occurring, the age and gender, we see percentages of the population affected BUT to do something about this requires us again to dig deeper. We need to find out the underlying reasons. In the same way, when we respond to patient safety incidents we need to dig deeper and identify the underlying and root causes so that we can truly do something about it.

    I'd like to provide some examples of how my work in human factors is influencing COVID-19 research and resources. 

    In response to the UK Government asking for businesses to provide thousands of ventilators to help tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, myself and other human factors professionals collaborated with Patient Safety Learning to provide human factors/ergonomics input to support the design effort for these new ventilators. This resulted in a ventilator safety in use driver diagram developed by Patient Safety Learning and a human factors guide from the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors. In addition, in an example of cross-industry collaboration, Yorkshire Water gave me permission to share their human factors engineering specification with designers of ventilators and other critical medical device designers, which quickly took place.

    Following this, my attention was turned towards sharing advice on working in high heat and heat stress. Based on the Health & Safety Executive Guidance (HSE (2013) INDG451 ‘Heat Stress in the workplace’), I produced a document and flowchart addressing what happens to us when we experience extreme heat, this has been welcomed and shared by the London midwife managers. 

    Next, came questions relating to shift work and fatigue, which led to me creating a summary document based again on a Health Safety Executive website and an ORR document (Office of Rail Regulation [Jan 2012] Managing Rail Staff Fatigue) that emphasises the need for a fatigue management system plus tips for helping ourselves and each other to sleep better when shift working and to recognise and respond to the symptoms of fatigue (www.staffs.ac.uk/clinical-skills).

    It has also been interesting to note the range of public and enforcement behaviours shown in the media that relate to our response to the ‘lockdown’ in this and other countries.  Human responses often link to aspects of culture and sub-cultures, power and influence, personal responsibility and risk perception.  All of which are highlighted during our Human Factors for Patient Safety course.

    Looking ahead, I can see many learning and research opportunities evolving from this pandemic and the opportunity to add to our human factors knowledge base for the good of society. Within the Staffordshire School of Health and Social Care our mix of staff provides us with a unique opportunity to achieve new research in human factors and patient safety and we look forward to embracing the opportunity to learn together.

    About the Author

    Dr Sue Whalley-Lloyd is a Senior Lecturer in Human Factors / Ergonomics and course leader for the PgCert & MSc Human Factors for Patient Safety course at Staffordshire University.

    View Sue's short video presentation on why a human factors course is important for patient safety and what the course at Staffordshire University covers



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