Ergonomics is sometimes described as “fitting the system to the human,” meaning that through informed decisions, equipment, tools, environments, and tasks can be selected and designed to fit unique human abilities and limitations. Typical examples in the “physical” or “occupational ergonomics” arena include designing a lifting job to occur at or near waist height, selecting a tool shape that reduces awkward postures, and reducing unnecessary tasks and movements to increase production or reduce errors and waste.
Much of the public’s perception of ergonomics is rooted in occupational ergonomics. What many people do not know is that occupational ergonomics is just one application of ergonomics as a whole. Another facet of ergonomics is known as “cognitive ergonomics” or “human factors.”
Cognitive ergonomics focuses on the fit between human cognitive abilities and limitations and the machine, task, environment, etc. Example cognitive ergonomics applications include designing a software interface to be easy to use, designing a sign or warning label so the majority of people will understand and act in the intended manner, designing an airplane cockpit or nuclear power plant control system so the operators will not make catastrophic errors.
Cognitive ergonomics is especially important in the design of complex, high-tech, or automated systems. Complex automated systems create interesting design challenges, and research and post accident analyses indicate that the human role in automated systems must be closely considered. Automation can result in increased operator monitoring and vigilance requirements, complex decision-making requirements, and other issues that can increase the likelihood of errors and accidents. Another interesting effect in automation is that humans will sometimes over-trust or mistrust an automated system.
Events such as the Bhopal, India, Union Carbide Corporation chemical disaster that killed at least 2,500 people; the Three Mile Island Nuclear plant disaster; countless automobile accidents; and the crash of a US Marine Corp MV-22 Osprey, to name just a few examples, all have their roots in ergonomics/human factors problems. Misuse or unintended use of consumer products, a common liability for US businesses, often occurs when ergonomics/human factors principles are neglected. Poor productivity and quality performance that drives a business to failure can often be traced directly to neglecting ergonomics in the design of products and production systems.
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2002-05-01.