Human error is inevitable. It happens in health care systems as it does in all other complex systems, and no measure of attention, training, dedication, or punishment is going to stop it. The discipline of human factors engineering (HFE) has been dealing with the causes and effects of human error since the 1940's. Originally applied to the design of increasingly complex military aircraft cockpits, HFE has since been effectively applied to the problem of human error in such diverse systems as nuclear power plants, NASA spacecraft, the process control industry, and computer software. Today the health care industry is becoming aware of the costs of human error and is turning to HFE for answers. Just as early experimental psychologists went beyond the label of "pilot error" to explain how the design of cockpits led to air crashes, today's HFE specialists are assisting the health care industry in identifying the causes of significant human errors in medicine and developing ways to eliminate or ameliorate them. This series of articles will explore the nature of human error and how HFE can be applied to reduce the likelihood of errors and mitigate their effects.