Ergonomics

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How are ergonomics and human factors connected to engineering?

Engineers have a distinct advantage as workplace designers and improvers: companies that hire engineers expect them to independently come up with analyses and suggestions for change as part of improving systems and operations. Expectations from company leadership on an engineer’s mind-set and skills often lead to a role where they are trusted to come up with practical suggestions and even make decisions that change the workplace.

Other roles with ergonomics and human factors knowledge, such as ergonomists, occupational health and safety (OHS) agents, medical/health service staff, consultants, etc. may not always have the same mandate, expectation or training to suggest design changes, purchases, work task modifications, etc. — and if they do, those with a medical or physiotherapeutic backgrounds may be limited in scope to merely providing an analysis output, but not to contribute towards a new design solution (unless the company in question is ergonomically mature enough to make this possible using cross-functional teams; but this practice is not to be taken for granted).

Also, a disadvantage of addressing ergonomics and human factors from the medical/health angle is that they are often not able to act until workers have actually been complaining or have gotten injured — and in such cases, interventions may end up tailored to easing the situation only for the injured worker on an individual basis. It may be hard from that angle to argue for any comprehensive changes in a proactive manner, if management is not convinced that the problem can recur and cause trouble again.

Therefore, workplace change agents with an engineering role have a greater leverage to make sustainaible improvements, because they may be able to do something to address the root cause in the work system that may be a risk for many workers. In other words, an engineer who has good knowledge of ergonomics (and its monetary value) can have a very positive long-term impact on business because their knowledge about human needs and capabilities can be translated into feasible system design changes that can avert systemic health and safety risks. That is, engineers can do this, if they are educated and trained to recognize matters of human well-being and system performance as part of their work to make a workplace more efficient, productive and socially and economically sustainable.

Different engineering roles act on different types of knowledge

Engineers may end up playing a variety of different (sometimes overlapping) roles in their professional career, each with their distinct scope, system level and operational concerns — some switch between several of these throughout their working life, depending on how specialize their working role is and at what system level they are expected to address problem solving. For example, an engineer may act on a specialized, operative level with responsibility for a single production line, which would require specific methods and knowledge to optimize for human well-being and performance. Other engineers end up at a management level, where they are perhaps not served by anatomical knowledge and ergonomics evaluation methods, but may impact it greatly by having responsibilities for economics, personnel well-being and approving investments in new equipment. Yet others may act in a more visionary way to orchestrate a production system on a macro scale, involving supply chain operations and a sustainable vision.

At any one of these levels, knowledge of ergonomics and human factors can be a vital pat of continuous improvement work, as well as a sound business practice where the value of healthy, knowledgeable and motivated workers is proactively supported and preserved before any problems or system inefficiencies arise, thanks to the engineer understanding what is required of a system for its human components to perform at their best.

Working roles in which an engineer can use ergonomics and human factors knowledge to positively impact a workplace

Since our aim for this literature series is to give both detailed knowledge about the human body and mind’s capabilities and prerequisites as well as to provide actionable ways to design and improve work systems, we have identified some different engineering roles (see Figure 1.1) that may be useful as “filters” to sift through the knowledge in this literature series, both while studying (if you have a furure work role in mind) and later in life as a practicing professional. For the latter group, business cases and design decisions. It may also be helful to be aware of the perspectives of other actors in a production organization, as they may require a tailored set of arguments to become convinced of the benefits of a workplace change initiative.

Working roles in which an engineer can use ergonomics and human factors knowledge to positively impact a workplace.

1. The manager/leader

This person has a wide scope of responsibility in a company, addressing aspects like: the recruitment, training, performance and well-being of employees; having the mandate of whether to approve improvement projects and make investments; running a productive and feasible business, where employees are treated as a valuable asset; and aligning operations with an overall organizational vision, such as sustainability strategy. This person needs a macro-system view, an understanding of conditions that support worker well-being on an individual and team level, and economical aspects of work system performance.

2. The system performance improver

This person is responsible for the performance and improvement of a particular system or sub-system (for example, the efficiency of a production line) and acts independently to make a current-state analysis, which in turn acts as a basis for suggesting improvements. This role must understand the economic gains of good ergonomics to make a compeling business case for changes, and relies on data collection, ergonomics evaluation methods and tools, and an understanding of which conditions allow humans to perform physical and mental work well.

3. The work environment/Safety specialist

This person has a particular focus on the worker’s well-being and safety. This means that a solid knowledge of the capabilities and limitations of the human body and mind at work is essential for this role, in order to avoid harmful loading, distraction and repetitive strain. This person also needs to understand how work environmental factors influence human performance, and need to be able to use guidelines and standards to ensure the design of safe high-performance work environments.

4. The purchaser

Although perhaps not the most typical engineering role, this one has a considerable say in whether an improvement is made possible or not (and may overlap with other roles). When this person has an understanding for the type of investments that lead to an economically sustainable work environment with few worker ill-health issues, then money can be used wisely to invest in solutions with a synergetic systems perspective (rather than a reactive, individual-based one) that will have a lasting beneficial impact. They often need to consider legislative demands and time-horizons for expected payback on an investment.

5. The sustainability agent

Finally, an increasing concern for many organizations is that of sustainability in all business aspects; this means balancing social, economic and environmental aspects in order to ensure that continued operations will have a positive impact on people, planet and profit. But how is this connected to ergonomics and human factors? We argue that sustainability – particularly social and economical aspects – can be addressed both in a global macro-perspective and a local, company-level perspective, and that with a solid understanding of human needs and how they translate into requirements on a workplace, engineers who design and improve workplaces can contribute to more socially and economically sustainable production systems.

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  • References
    • Dray, S.M. (1985). Macroergonomics in Organizations: An Introduction. In. Brown, I.D., Goldsmith, R., Coombs, K. and Sinclair, M. (Eds.) Ergonomics International, 85: 520 – 525. Taylor and Francis, London.
    • Hendrick, H. & Kleiner, B. (2001). Macroergonomics: An Introduction to Work System Design. Santa Monica, CA: Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, Design, Human Factors & Ergonomics Society. ISBN 0-945289-14-6
    • Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. (2015). Technical Groups.
    • IEA, International Ergonomics Association. (2000). Definition and Domains of ergonomics.

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