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April 2, 2009

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Seriously speaking

The Ergonomics Society is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, so current president Tom Stewart looks back at the development of the discipline and forward to more collaborative working between ergonomists and safety and health practitioners.

The word “ergonomics” was defined by one of the discipline’s pioneers, Professor Hywell Murrell, after consultation with Greek and Latin scholars, as “the study of the relationship between man and his working environment”.

The Second World War was one of the major drivers for ergonomics. Historically, military personnel were professionals who trained intensively until even the least obvious equipment became familiar and could be used with little problem. During the war, large numbers of conscripts were trained very quickly, then found themselves quite literally on the front line. Under pressure, they reverted to instinctive behaviour, which often led to disaster.

Psychologists, physiologists and anatomists worked with engineers to redesign the military equipment to fit the size, shape and capabilities of the people intended to use it — with dramatic success in many areas, including the design of aircraft, and tank-gun sights and controls.

After the war, the need to improve industrial production led to similar knowledge about human capabilities being applied in a wide range of industries, and so the Ergonomics Society was formed. Nowadays, a great deal is known about human capabilities and behaviour but, frustratingly, this is often not applied to the design of products, systems and services in time.

I use the phrase ‘in time’ deliberately because, when accidents occur, there is a tendency to point the finger at the person and blame ‘human error’. One of the frustrations for ergonomists is that once these incidents are investigated, it becomes clear that many of the so-called errors were entirely predictable and should have been designed out of the system.

Having been involved in ergonomics for nearly 40 of its 60 years, I really do feel that it is time for ergonomics to be taken much more seriously in a proactive rather than reactive manner.

A good working relationship

To be fair, there are some areas where ergonomics is already taken seriously, and health and safety is probably the most important of these. The HSE has a dedicated topic page on ergonomics (also known as human factors — see panel overleaf),1 and I understand that it is one of the largest specific disciplines within the organisation (and the Health and Safety Laboratory). The Executive’s human factors/ergonomics effort is focused on two key areas — preventing major accidents and protecting personal health and safety.

The former is the main focus for the relevant inspectors in the major-hazard sectors, and the regulator provides detailed guidance and briefing sheets for organisations on 14 human factors/ergonomics topics in this area, covering:

  • Alarm handling;
  • Interfaces; 
  • Safety-critical communications; 
  • Supervision; 
  • Behavioural safety;
  • Procedures; 
  • Training and competence; 
  • Organisational change;
  • Staffing levels and workload;
  • Managing human failures; 
  • Fatigue from shift work and overtime;  
  • Organisational culture;
  • Integration of human factors into risk assessment and investigations;
  • Human factors in design.

In terms of protecting personal health and safety the major areas of concern include:

  • musculoskeletal disorders;
  • work-related stress; and 
  • fatigue from working patterns — shift work and overtime.

All three areas have increased in importance, particularly as our use of technology has increased sedentary work, reduced our opportunities for healthy physical exercise at work, and generally added to the pressure to perform — all of which can lead to fatigue and stress.

These ergonomics issues are certainly likely to be on the agenda of most health and safety professionals, even if they do not work in particularly hazardous industries. But the relationship between ergonomics and health and safety is not so obvious to everyone.

When the so-called ‘six pack’ of directives emerged from Europe in the early 90s, ergonomics was suddenly thrust centre stage in two of these measures — manual handling and display screen equipment (DSE) work. As employers rushed to put in place manual-handling and display-screen training and risk-assessment procedures, the number of ergonomics services providers burgeoned. In retrospect, there were two (probably unintended) consequences of this surge.

Firstly, some of the new entrants into the ergonomics market were not only not ergonomists but were not very good, either. Many employers found that they paid dearly for unnecessary accessories and equipment recommended by these ‘consultants’. The upshot of this was that the employers typically decided that ergonomics was a waste of money — not that they had made a bad business decision.

Secondly, and more positively, manual handling and display screen work became inextricably linked with health and safety. This opened ergonomists up to competent health and safety practitioners, and established a focus on protecting workers from injury and discomfort. Important though this is, however, it is not the sole objective of ergonomics.

The bigger picture

Ergonomics was founded with the aim of improving overall system performance and this, I believe, should remain a key issue for ergonomists. Focusing on avoiding the negative consequences of badly-designed and implemented technology will not bode well for the future. Without ignoring negative health impacts, which remain important, ergonomists should take a broader view of the relationship between people and technology, where much of our effort goes into improving the user’s experience of products and systems.

But where does this leave health and safety professionals? As I see it, healthy work is likely to be satisfying and productive, and not just injury-free. There are therefore opportunities for health and safety and ergonomics practitioners to work together to ensure a more pro-active approach to the design of work, work equipment, and systems, and not just be the ones who are called in to pick up the pieces when things have gone wrong.

Clearly, there are important improvements to be achieved in the safety-critical industries, and there is much good, collaborative work being carried out in such specialised fields as oil and gas, transport, and power generation. But I believe there is more that could be done in less risky, office-based industries.

The exponential growth and development of computer technology over the last 30 years have changed how people perform knowledge tasks, as well as where and when they carry them out. From laptops to Blackberries, these dramatic changes in the nature of office work have brought enormous benefits for organisations and for individuals, but they have also created new risks for the health, safety and comfort of white-collar workers.

Research into the use of portable display screen equipment published by the HSE in 20002 identified three main factors in creating musculoskeletal problems:

  • carrying extra weight (not just of the laptop but also its accessories);
  • hunching over the fixed keyboard/screen arrangement; and
  • working in unsuitable environments (on public-transport seating).

These problems were exacerbated by extended working hours — never getting away from work. Three years after that report, the Executive issued further guidance on laptop use, which encouraged such measures as buying lighter equipment, using rucksacks to carry them around, using extra keyboards or screens when working on them for more than a few minutes, and providing more advice for users on avoiding poor working postures.

The guidance explains that a laptop work arrangement should be treated like any other DSE workplace, with fully-adjustable screen and keyboard positions and similar desk and chair requirements.

Since then, the use of laptops has increased dramatically, to the extent that they are now the preferred machine for home as well as office use. The use of smart phones and other Blackberry-type devices has also expanded — so much so that ‘Blackberry Thumb’ is now an accepted medical problem!

In at the start

I suspect that, despite these changes and growth in the use of DSE, and the new health impacts that have arisen as a result, most health and safety practitioners are, or were, not involved in specifying all of these laptops, PDAs, etc. No doubt they were called in to deal with the subsequent health and safety issues, though.

I therefore suggest that we should all collect evidence on the economics of this exclusion — what it has cost to overcome the problems caused. As well as providing you with credible evidence for your senior management that selecting better designs could actually have saved money, I would like you to share this information with me in order to build a database of examples of how early ergonomics intervention in purchasing decisions would have made a real difference.3

I am not suggesting that ergonomics or health and safety should be the only, or even the most important criteria. The technology has to work and be reliable, but if its use results in discomfort or ill health then that should have been discovered before it was purchased. I know too many organisations where they have had to buy their way out of trouble with additional kit and gizmos to overcome ergonomic deficiencies, which could have been avoided.

It is time for ergonomists and health and safety professionals to lobby their organisations to be more proactive. Why should we continue to let the technologists inflict inappropriate devices and interfaces on users? Let’s take a stand against unusable technology that damages the health and well-being of the workers that use it.      

2    HSE (2000): Health and safety of portable display screen equipment (Contract Research Report 304/2000), prepared by System Concepts
3    Tom can be e-mailed, in confidence, at [email protected]

Tom Stewart is president of The Ergonomics Society.

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