It’s widely accepted that one of the biggest challenges facing humankind this century is a changing climate. The potential consequences of rapid changes in temperature and associated unpredictable weather are leading to a fundamental shift in how we think about living, working and consuming. As ergonomists our knowledge and understanding of how people work, behave and make decisions, means that we can contribute significantly to ensuring that the rapid and radical changes needed are safe and acceptable to all users. Indeed, in many ways the ergonomics and environmental agendas are closely aligned:
- New jobs are being created in green industries, particularly in the production of renewable energy, and these will grow rapidly. Ergonomics can contribute to reducing and managing the risks associated with these jobs.
- Good ergonomic design can help to ensure that the right equipment, products and systems are designed or selected first time therefore reducing waste.
- Many accidents, errors and system failures have both significant human and environmental costs (e.g. the Piper Alpha disaster). By considering those who will interact with a system we can help reduce the negative consequences of errors.
- Reducing energy use will require behaviour changes that ergonomists are well placed to assist with.
The next decade will see a massive expansion in green jobs in many industries, particularly in the renewable energy sector. Six thousand offshore wind turbines will be installed on the UK continental shelf in the next 10 years, and thousands of jobs will be created. Clearly, this rapid expansion presents both technical and human challenges, including those associated with the manufacture of the large component parts (blades being up to 70m long, 3m wide and curved in shape). Their transport, by road and over water, and construction, which will involve use of cranes and the potential for windy conditions, make installation particularly difficult. Maintenance access to offshore turbines via boat or by climbing 60-80m on internal ladders has obvious difficulties, and maintenance tasks involve working at height on a swaying structure. There will be other environmental risks too, including differences in temperature at various times of the year, and noise and vibration, which could have an effect on worker performance.
Offshore wind farms are complex systems that also present many other ergonomics challenges: accommodation (e.g. on a hotel ship); shift patterns; transfer methods; emergency access to masts (with rescues likely to be required from the top of the mast); communications between operators working on masts and a control centre; the skills and training requirements of operators; the safety culture, particularly considering the remote locations of operations; and the rapid growth in the industry.
There will be similar issues in the development of tidal energy, although with specific needs related to working underwater. Some of these issues have been faced in the offshore oil and gas industry and we can draw on the UK’s significant human factors expertise in that industry to contribute to health and safety in the renewable energy sector.
Ergonomics challenges also arise in the collection and recycling of waste, with kerbside collection of recycling posing manual handling risks. Ergonomists in the UK and Sweden have undertaken research and produced guidance in this area, but more work may be required as recycling grows.
There are also ergonomic challenges in food production. Organic farming tends to be more labour intensive than other modern farming methods, with people often working in awkward postures. In the push towards environmental protection, it’s essential not to forget the health risks that workers may be exposed to in this and other green industries.
Low energy systems and products
Ergonomists, with our focus on systems thinking, also have much to offer in the design of low energy systems and products. Application to a few systems that are already changing or are likely to change in order to reduce energy usage are considered here.
Transport systems and vehicle design
With the range of health and environmental benefits of cycling and walking, many councils have set targets for increasing these, but we know there are considerable barriers to achieving this. A systems approach is needed to consider where these lie, for example, road conditions, cost of bikes, perception of risk, storage, and shower facilities at the workplace.
Lower energy vehicles are also being developed. A consideration of the system within which electric cars will be used can help to establish where recharging points should be, and how these can be put in place. Other emerging technologies include auto-off engines, to prevent the vehicle idling, and automatic speed inhibitors, to increase fuel efficiency, but can we contribute to drivers’ acceptance of these? Real time information on fuel economy and driving style can be provided to drivers; one example is the Foot-LITE project led by the Motor Industry Research Association (MIRAMotor Industry Research Association).
Buildings and urban environments
Many innovative developments are underway in the design of low-energy buildings and urban environments. The US’s Green Building Council run a green building certification programme, titled Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), which rates a building project’s sustainable practices. Factors considered include energy savings, water efficiency, carbon dioxide emissions reduction, and improved indoor environmental quality. LEED also explicitly includes an ergonomics component requiring identification of the physical and psychological needs of the people who will be occupying the building. The scheme also emphasises the provision of ergonomic equipment and work tools, and ergonomic education in the use of them and the building. This certification is operational in 30 countries, although not currently in the UK. Might the IEHF have a role to play in ensuring building standards here explicitly consider ergonomics along with environmental issues?
Recent, rapid technological changes have led to different ways of communicating. Many more people now work from home, and this leads to obvious ergonomic issues such as workstation design, communications, team working, productivity and maintaining a work-life balance. Video conferencing, webinars, and document sharing software are all ways of reducing the environmental impact of travel to meetings, but have usability and acceptability issues. There is also potential for these developments to change the way that training is delivered, for example, using virtual 3D worlds to simulate real-time events. There are obvious ergonomic questions to ask about interfaces and the effectiveness of this sort of training.
On-line shopping can be argued to be more energy efficient than the travel of goods and people to energy-hungry supermarkets. Over £4.3 billion was spent on-line in the UK in January 2010 but items have to be delivered to the customer, and there are considerable manual handling issues to be addressed. Drivers often work alone and against time pressures. They may have to negotiate difficult routes and stairs and handling aids are often not used. Obvious inputs from ergonomists are required.
While much can be done by industry to bring about a greener economy, responsibility also lies with consumers and householders to make greener decisions. Ergonomists have contributed significantly to our understanding of what motivates people and how to help with sustained behaviour change. The presentation of information is a key component of this; how complex information, such as the environmental impact of food items is presented, may have an effect on whether people respond. We can help with an understanding of the motivators and obstacles for changing behaviour and work is being undertaken by ergonomists at ESRI on this concerning domestic buildings.
So what next?
There will be significant opportunities for ergonomists to improve work, systems, products and behaviours in a lower carbon economy future. But what should we focus on? There are opportunities for us as professionals or as an Institute to address these issues, so we should ensure we’re ready to do so.