Ergonomics/Human Factors began in the United States largely after World War II. The term ‘ergonomics’ was coined in Europe nearly 100 years before in 1847. Since then ergonomics has played a role in many Industrially Developed Countries (ICs) in Western Europe, Scandanavia, and North America. The primary focus in many of these areas became military applications dealing with both physical and cognitive design.
As greater industrialization occurred ergonomics moved into the private sector addressing both health and safety, and productivity in manufacturing settings. From manufacturing, ergonomics has spread to many industries and environments showing a strong representation in product and system design.
Having successfully addressed ergonomics issues as they pertain to health and safety, many countries are now using ergonomics principles to enlarge, enrich, and enhance both work and home life.
What about countries who do not have the same amount of growth or capital as those mentioned above? Does ergonomics exist in their models?
Industrially Developing Countries (IDC) have actually found ergonomics to be an almost necessary perspective to effectively and successfully implement technology transferred from more developed countries.
The fundamentals of ergonomics again: to make the best fit possible between humans, equipment/tools, and their shared environment.
With regards to IDCs, an ergonomics perspective can help to best use the human and technical resources by optimizing the fit between existing and any new or transferred technology, and the local user population and operating environment. Particularly in the aspect of technology transfer, an ergonomics perspective can be beneficial.
One of the main purposes of technology transfer is within economic development where two goals are strived for simultaneously. The primary goal is the removal of extreme poverty by satisfying the most basic needs of food, shelter, health, employment and education. The secondary goal is the modernization and growth of national output forth for domestic consumption and to earn income through exporting (Shahnavaz, 1997).
So how exactly can ergonomics play a role in technology transfer. An often seen scenario is when equipment that was made for one population, say northern European, is transferred to a population of a different anthropometric size, for instance an Oriental population. This leads immediately to awkward postures and a higher rate of accidents and occupational diseases. Another example is transferring equipment with all instructions in the German language to a Tiawanese speaking population. In both cases the risk for personal injury, poorer production, and even disaster has increased by poorly matching the user and the equipment or environment.
As great differences can exist among countries participating in an exchange including natural and human resources, infrastructure, environment, business experience, cultural background, anthropometry, etc., it may be inappropriate to transfer technology without any modification.
Lanza (1985) sees the disaster at the Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India as an example of just that: “The real cause of the Bhopal tragedy is blind technology transfer. It is the result of establishing a highly complex chemical facility in a region with no extensive history of technological evolution.”
Other considerations whose neglect may cause a mismatch between the worker, tools, and environment can include the preferred working posture of the population; possibly nutritional inadequacies; greater fatigue; psychology; culture in the sense of learning, training and motivation; and cultural responses to stimuli.
For instance, American subjects have an almost perfect response to the color scheme, red-stop and green-go. Implementing technology from America to a country where neither the color red nor green brought about a programmed response could prove ineffective at best and disastrous at worst. What if these controls were part of a nuclear facility and in the event of an emergency, the operator was unable to determine which stimuli required a certain action? Examining such a transfer from an ergonomics perspective would likely highlight such mismatches.
In fact, leading scholars and practitioners in both ICs and IDCs have stressed the importance of ergonomics in the successful transfer of technology (Human Factors Society, 1987).
Future work with ergonomics
The International Ergonomics Association (IEA), formed in 1959, aims to promote the knowledge and practice of ergonomics by initiating and supporting international activities and cooperation (IEA, 2001).
As such, the IEA is the federation of ergonomics and human factors societies around the world. As of June, 2000, the IEA included 35 federated societies. These represent a broad geographic and cultural area including the ergonomics societies from the countries of China, Yugoslavia, Croatia, India, Brazil, Russia, and Turkey.
Increased awareness of and activities related to ergonomics in these countries will surely benefit their continued growth.
Human Factors Society, 1987. Human Factors Society Bulletin, 30, 12, p.11
IEA: http://www.iea.cc. 2001
Lanza, G.R., 1985. Blind Technology Transfer: the Bhopal Example. Environment Science and Technology. Vol. 19., 7, pp.581-582.
Shahnavaz, H. Technology Transfer and Ergonomics. Center for Ergonomics of Developing Countries, CEDC. Lulea University, Lulea, Sweden.