You’re an Ergonomist? What’s that?
Oh to be an accountant, a nurse or a van driver…..things would be so much simpler….It’s an everyday question isn’t it…’so what do you do?’….but when you’re an Ergonomist it’s far from a simple answer.
Thankfully in some spheres of life people do understand what I do, but on the whole I’m usually met with part blank/questioning looks (“you’re a what?”), and part flash of inspiration (”oh I know….you adjust chairs in offices don’t you”). And some of the time I do adjust office chairs, so they’re not actually wrong, but ergonomics is about soooo much more than adjusting people’s chairs.
So….using the analogy of driving a car, I’m going to have a go at explaining some really basic issues to try to shed a tiny and frankly very simplistic light on what it is that we actually do.
A bit of background before we start – In some industries ’Ergonomists’ are called ‘Human Factors Specialists/Consultants’, and I think ‘Human Factors Specialist’ in many ways explains what we do better than Ergonomist – says what we do ‘on the tin’ really. Human Factors – all things human, and by ‘all things’ we mean ‘all things’ – PHYSICAL, PSYCHOLOGICAL and SOCIAL. Actually more complicated than that, but that’ll do for now!
So you’re getting into a car after someone else has driven it. We’re all different shapes and sizes, so you adjust the seat, the mirrors, steering wheel, and generally make the car ‘fit’ you so that you can concentrate on driving comfortably and safely to your destination. This ability to make adjustments has been designed into our cars by Ergonomists. Working alongside Designers or Engineers, Ergonomists work at making the environment or task (in this case driving the car) adaptable to the physical needs of the human. By using feedback from the end users, ergonomic designs are gradually improved, making it more comfortable, safe, efficient, and easy to drive.
So the adjustability has been built into the car, but will you actually use it? Is it easy to use? Do you know how to adjust it? Do you know why you should adjust it and what’s right for you? Are you on your way to a stressful interview or well deserved holiday? Are you distracted by the need to navigate or on a familiar route? Is there a clear straight road ahead of you, or an obstacle course of constantly shifting roadworks? All factors affecting your ability to drive comfortably, efficiently and safely. And all Ergonomics or Human Factors.
Are you a middle aged/careful driver with your Manager riding alongside you, a nervous learner driver, or a teenager who’s just passed their test and motivated by the need to impress? Not meant to be provocative generalisations, but merely an illustration that different people will behave in different ways. And it’s still all Ergonomics and Human Factors.
This is a very simple scenario really – one person driving a single car. But what I hope it illustrates is that we’re not just physical beings. We’re complex thinking, feeling, emotional beings too, operating in an equally complex world of physical and psychosocial interactions with our environment and the other human beings within it. And all these interactions have an effect on us – good and not so good.
Often this manifests as problems with an individual, and Ergonomists are well known for being able to work with organisations to make improvements at this individual level. But where ergonomics really shines is at a system level. Chances are if something isn’t working for an individual then it’s not working at a wider/system level either and the health, happiness and productivity of the organisation as a whole will be impacted upon.
Unravelling all of these interactions to determine what works and what doesn’t is what Ergonomists and Human Factors Specialists do. I say ‘unravelling’, but in reality we can’t actually truly ‘unravel’ it because that complex system is by its very nature mixed up, mashed up, and tangled. So we observe, we interact, we analyse and uncover the factors that are causing problems and help develop real world solutions to those problems.
In a nutshell – Ergonomists help make people and things work better, and in doing so help organisations create healthier, happier and more productive places to work.
Simple really. ☺