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TABLE 1 Comparative Examples of Physical and Cognitive Ergonomics

Human Activity

Physical Ergonomics (worker safety and risks)

Cognitive Ergonomics (process safety and risks)

Will sitting for 8 hours…

…cause back pain?

…cause loss of attention?

Will excessive noise…

…cause hearing loss?

…cause operators to miss a request?

Do the operator displays…

…cause eye strain?

…cause a misunderstanding of the situation?

ergonomist might analyze the same system from two different perspectives. In general, a physical ergonomist focuses on creating an environment that is safe and does not create physical stress or difficulties for workers in that environment. Cognitive ergonomists focus on creating an environment that maintains overall process safety, for example, by minimizing the chances for human error. Both analyses are important, because improvements in either can significantly reduce downtime by reducing worker injuries, accelerate overall performance time by eliminating extraneous steps, and increase worker satisfaction.

Many people claim that ergonomics is just “common sense,” but given the number of engineered systems that are designed without taking into account human capabilities and limitations and that do not truly fit task requirements, I often claim that, “Unfortunately, it’s not that common.” As a simple example, take the challenge of finding all apartments for rent (that allow pets) within 1 mile (e.g., 20 minutes walking distance) of a particular location. This task, which can be easily specified, is almost impossible to achieve using current search engines, not because they can not accomplish the task, but because they are not set up to run this kind of query. Thus users must endlessly search, type, click, move the mouse, zoom, scroll, page, phone, bookmark, write notes, and so on. In fact, you can imagine a well-designed system that would accept such a query and return a map and directions, price, and everything else you might want to know in one easy result that could either be printed out in a logical order for driving (or, in the case of a city, a logical bus route or walking route) or downloaded directly to a GPS system. Thus even when the technology is available, system designers may not really understand user or task requirements, thus creating a system that necessitates all sorts of workarounds and extra investment of time and effort in order to accomplish a task, thereby increasing the possibility for errors or suboptimal solutions or, equally likely, a giving up by users because the system makes accomplishing a task too difficult.

The problem is especially prevalent in the current health care system, where so much effort is required to gather together records and relevant information for a patient (particularly one who has just moved to the area or just been admitted to an emergency room) that doctors most often rely on asking the patient for a health



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