The news headlines of the last decade map the journey of ergonomics through a host of emerging fields and national concerns. The map can be read for indications of when the ergonomist megaphone has been heard above the “cacophony,” as the noise of debate about ergonomics issues is described by one distinguished member of the profession, and perhaps as a guide to ways of amplifying the ergonomics message in a time when more decision makers appear willing to listen.
The headlines followed the birth and death of the hard-fought Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Ergonomics Standard, which was signed by Bill Clinton in the waning days of his presidency then promptly rescinded in 2001 by his successor, George W. Bush. Throughout the Bush presidency, manufacturers and business organizations made headlines by reviling the standard and using “ergonomics” as a synonym for “too costly” at every opportunity.
Ergonomists saw a role for their profession in the much-headlined “war on terror” after men flew planes into the World Trade Center towers and Pentagon on 9/11. Several universities circulated lists to the media that included academic ergonomists among the experts who could provide insight on the attacks and on the Bush government’s efforts to thwart new ones. The Ergonomics Report™ interviewed three of the listed experts in 2006 for a series of articles on the subject. One interviewee pointed out that ergonomists are armed with the kind of knowledge that can help reduce the threat, but he worried, in so many words, that the ergonomist megaphone wasn’t reaching decision makers. The observations of Peter Hancock, D.Sc., Provost and Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Institute of Simulation and Training at Central Florida University, who was the 2002 president of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, could be regarded as a primer on using the arsenal of ergonomist expertise in the war on terror.
Professor Hancock noted that the terrorists indoctrinate people when they are young and impressionable, and explained that the ergonomics of education could be effective in changing attitudes for the better. He advocates providing “conviviality tools” to enhance the effort. The term embraces a theory propounded by philosopher Ivan Illich, and describes tools that give each person who uses them the opportunity to enrich the environment with the fruits of their vision.
He described simplistic assumptions about source conditions as a mistake. “Some of these people are not extremely poor and nothing-to-lose individuals. Sometimes they seem to have a significant grounding and understanding and they are not unintelligent.” In his opinion, he explained, the emerging field of neuroergonomics holds promise because it “asks us to connect the basics of pure psychology and neuroscience to the effect and action in the world.”
Ergonomists should be involved in saying how we design environments and technologies that promote safe behavior, he said. The professor recalled the example of Jim Wise, who designed banks in such a way that they are difficult to rob. “One of the great things ergonomics and human factors can help with is the design of the world in which the behavior we wish people to engage in is the easiest behavior to engage in.”
Many preventative measures are potentially counterproductive because they are shaped by an emotional response to prior attacks. “One thing the ergonomists should be injecting into this system is a degree of rationality,” he said.
Improving the Ergonomist Megaphone
Rational messages are likely to be lost if the delivery method isn’t carefully considered, according to the professor. “How do you communicate appropriate information to people and show them the fallacy of other (information)? How many messages are expressed in media that are accessible by their intended audience and in a language they understand? How many human factors and ergonomics websites are there in Arabic? How many Arabic (speaking) people know of our effort?”
Professor Hancock believes ergonomists have a lot to contribute, but that being “heard in the cacophony is very difficult at times. Most of the time we sit and blame ourselves,” he added, “and we say, ‘we ought to find a better way of framing our message.’ … However, in order to generate solutions, there is also the obligation at the other end to listen to some of these techniques and approaches.”
Healthcare Reform a New Frontier
Less dramatic than the ergonomist foray into the war on terror, but no less vigorous for that—if the number of research papers on the subject is an indication—is the pursuit of a central role for ergonomics in the multi-fronted effort to reform the country’s healthcare system.
President Barak Obama has identified the need to create a nationwide e-health system for patient records as the foundation of his healthcare reform plan. Though it is only a small part of the overall goal, the e-patient records goal represents a formidable undertaking. It has been pointed out that every hospital, nursing home, pharmacy and each one of the hundreds of thousands of physicians who belong to solo or small group practices will need to participate. Among the unanswered questions cited by researchers are how the hundreds of thousands of electronic medical record systems will interconnect; how they will they exchange data; how the privacy and security of hundreds of millions of personal files be maintained; and who will pay. The biggest question of all seems to be whether the network, once installed, will work. There is also the issue of how to integrate the many types of information that could be included in a patient’s record—doctor’s notes, test results, billing data, not to mention the dozens of sources of information.
Problems related to CPOEs and UACs — computerized provider order entries and unintended adverse consequences, respectively – are so common that researchers refer to them only by their acronyms. The sheer number of research papers on CPOEs and UACs suggests an almost bottomless demand for ergonomics and human factors solutions in e-records plan alone. And the inputting of the data will require the rethinking of computer hardware and software in healthcare facilities – creating more space for ergonomics.
Penetrating the "green" Debate
It is hard to tell whether the ergonomist megaphone is being heard above the healthcare reform cacophony, but clearly it has penetrated the “green” debate.
The “green” movement has taken over front-page headlines. President Obama is a proponent, and has stated the intention of creating a “green economy.” He chose Van Jones, founder of the activist group Green for All, as “green czar” to oversee the new direction. One of the early benefits of the thrust is “The Going Green: Safe and Healthy Jobs” initiative of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), an initiative that incorporates ergonomics in its concepts.
The initiative could hearten the profession as it suggests the ergonomist message is falling on ears ready to listen after years when “ergonomics” was a dirty word in the Washington administration. It opens a door for “green ergonomics” as a new direction in the ever-protean profession.
So-called green jobs include the installation and maintenance of solar panels and generators; construction and maintenance of wind energy turbines; jobs related to recycling; jobs related to the manufacture of green products; and jobs where green products are used in traditional fields such as agriculture, healthcare, and the service sector. In some instances, the hazards to workers may be similar to those in established industries. NIOSH notes that as traditional jobs evolve to meet new challenges, workers may be faced with known risks that had not previously affected their occupation.
NIOSH see its mission as developing “a framework to create awareness, provide guidance, and address occupational safety and health issues associated with green jobs and sustainability efforts.” The agency notes that it is important to make sure that worker safety and health are not overlooked.
One of the NIOSH tools is the Prevention through Design (PtD) initiative. The agency explains that one of the best ways to prevent and control occupational injuries, illnesses, and fatalities is to "design out" or minimize hazards and risks early in the design process, a strategy widely espoused in the ergonomics community. NIOSH recommends that the PtD concept should be part of all business decisions.
The NIOSH initiative coexists with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), a 10-year-old ecology-oriented building certification program developed and run by the United States Green Building Council (USBGC). The non-profit association of builders, environmentalists, elected officials and others provides “third-party verification that a building or community was designed and built using strategies aimed at improving performance across all the metrics that matter most: energy savings, water efficiency, CO2 emissions reduction, improved indoor environmental quality, and stewardship of resources and sensitivity to their impacts.” Certification requires ergonomics considerations. The USGBC notes that it “is the driving force of an industry that is projected to soar to $60 billion by 2010.”
An upcoming event in NIOSH’s new initiative is the Making Green Jobs Safer workshop, which will be held from December 14 to 16, 2009, in Washington DC. The workshop will bring together invited participants and a limited number of members of the public to help frame the issues around incorporating occupational safety and health into green and sustainability efforts.
Professor Alan Hedge, a professor in the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis at Cornell University, has taken up the challenge of spreading the ergonomics message in the green movement. In his article, The Sprouting of ‘Green’ Ergonomics,’” published in the December 2008 issue of the HFES Bulletin, he outlines the ergonomics aspects of LEED certification. "Workplace ergonomics is on the threshold of an exciting transformation," according to the professor. "All too often the field is seen as a reactive and idiosyncratic endeavor focusing on ameliorating worker injuries on a case-by-case basis. As such it has been widely opposed by those who view workplace ergonomics as a costly burden to business that is based on inadequate science. However, a recent development may fundamentally change how the ergonomics profession is viewed by positioning the field as a proactive discipline and propelling it to the forefront of the current green design movement.”
The headlines could come full circle. Under Bush’s successor, the idea of an ergonomics standard is being dusted off for reconsideration. Regulation will still face powerful opposition from the business community, but President Obama could be in a position to demand that objections are softened as a quid pro quo from his attempt to stimulate business activity in the country since January 20. The Executive Vice President for Government Affairs of the United States Chamber of Commerce, Bruce Josten, noted in a recent article in the organization’s magazine that the Chamber supported the $787 billion stimulus package because “our economy is experiencing three simultaneous shocks that have never happened before.” Predictably, he scolded the administration for “caving in to organized labor’s agenda,” and warned against imposing new ergonomics standards, but his concluding remarks could be read as a softer tone: “Although some targeted regulations may be necessary, government resources would be better spent helping small businesses comply with regulations, instead of levying fines and penalties.”
The softer tone opens up possibilities for the ergonomics message to penetrate where it can do some good.
Sources and resources: NIOSH; USGBC; Professor Peter Hancock
“The Sprouting of ‘Green’ Ergonomics:” Alan Hedge, Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Bulletin: Volume 51 No.12 December 2008
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2009-07-08.