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Minding ergonomics

By Don Patten

As prevalent as ergonomics has been in advertising to increase perceived value, the actual value of a product, system or service is in its user experience. User experience is about how a person feels about using a product, system or service. It is true that user experience is subjective in nature, but we’ve all read bad reviews on a product that has influenced our buying decision. Plus, we don’t all like the same things. Someone might be afraid of bees because they were stung when they were younger, shaping their behaviours based on their experiences. If your TV stopped working one week after the warranty ran out, that will create a poor opinion of that product. It’s about creating brand loyalty, and that is based on user experiences.

If how we feel about something affects our choices, what does user experience have to do with ergonomics? The influence of ergonomics is all around us, shaping our behaviours. You could even argue that there isn’t a time in your day that you do not come across ergonomics. That mattress you sleep on is designed to minimize the static load on your spine while you sleep. The coffee mug handle is designed to ensure most people can fit at least two fingers to hold their coffee. Your car has ergonomic design features often mentioned in car reviews, and the tablet you use should create a positive user experience and so on.

How do we achieve a good user experience? By ensuring that people like the physical characteristics of a product, that it’s intuitive and easy to use, and it is well-designed. In a nutshell, that is ergonomics comprising three interconnected disciplines. Yes, ergonomics does deal with the physical environment concerned with human anatomical, and some of the anthropometric, physiological and bio-mechanical characteristics as they relate to physical activity, but it is also in large part influenced by cognitive factors.

Cognitive ergonomics is concerned with mental processes — such as perception, memory, reasoning and motor response — as they affect interactions among humans and other elements of a system. They include mental workload, decision-making, skilled performance, human-computer interaction. Organizational ergonomics or macro-ergonomics does contain elements of both physical and cognitive ergonomics, but is concerned with the optimization of socio-technical systems, including their organizational structures, policies and processes.

How does this influence health and safety? Consider this example: When an accident has occurred in your workplace you take all the necessary steps to investigate the accident — interviewing witnesses, recording information, taking pictures, etc.

When finished, you methodically review the data to identify the root cause and put measures in place to prevent a reoccurrence. As you’re working through the process to determine the cause of the accident, you’re actually taking a systems approach, identifying all elements of the work process, environment, and any human influence from beginning to end, to arrive at the conclusion. In essence, you’re looking at the physical environment, how people responded to the policies and processes in place and their interpretation of the environment — elements of ergonomics. We get so wrapped up in the physical characteristics of keyboard trays and chairs that we miss the fact that we are practising ergonomics all the time.

As a health and safety community we need to have a better understanding of ergonomics, and how it influences health and safety — not just focusing on the physical environment. It will in fact assist us in making processes safer and ensuring that any policies, procedures and workplace layouts and designs are used and interpreted properly to reduce accidents.

Most of us have heard of behaviour-based safety, which “focuses on what people do, analyzes why they do it, and then applies a research-supported intervention strategy to improve what people do.” This speaks to what we have talked about with ergonomics.

Awareness of ergonomics has increased greatly over the past two decades. Issues related to ergonomics are frequently discussed in the media and have been the focus of attention for government departments, workers’ compensation boards, and private and public workplaces. Post-secondary educational institutions have been adding courses related to ergonomics to their curricula.

All this attention and the recognition of the benefits to be gained from ergonomics have increased the demand for people providing ergonomics-related services. All of this has led to regulations in some jurisdictions, and has others considering it.

Primarily focusing on the physical environment, while integrating all aspects of ergonomics, will ensure a better experience for workers.

Don Patten

Don Patten B. HK, is a Canadian Certified Professional Ergonomist (CCPE) and is the president of the Association of Canadian Ergonomists. You can contact him through the ACE website at
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