Friday, 21 May 2010

Health & Safety gone mad? What can ergonomics do?

There are always articles appearing in the press about "barmy" decisions taken on the basis of "health & safety", usually by local authorities. The theme is usually an over-reaction to what, for most of us, would seem a fairly non-hazardous activity in an attempt to remove any trace of liability.

Two articles in the press this week highlight this again: firstly, this article appeared in Metro  ( on children doing work repairing a carving in a chalk hill - a task that the Probation Service assessed as too risky for their offenders to do. Second, was this article in the Evening Standard about a letter box that has been closed as it has been assessed as a handling risk for postmen as it is too low (

Our argument is not whether these decisions were right or wrong but that these types of story often suggest a problem with a lack of understanding of ergonomics, physiology and the liklihood of particular actions causing injury.

The situation on the hillside might have been addressed through identifying control measures such as appropriate footwear and training which could have reduced the risks to an acceptable level.

The postbox is interesting as the ergonomics of manual handling requires consideration of the frequency of handling, the nature of the loads as well as the posture and environment. A poor posture, such as a low height, is not automatically an unacceptable risk if the handing is not frequent (once a day not usually being regarded as constant) and the loads are not heavy or unstable.

To produce sensible results the risk assessment process required in Health & Safety law requires a sensible judgement on probablility and consequence (i.e. you cannot eliminate risk) as well as a good and competent understanding of ergonomics.

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Saturday, 15 May 2010

The Value of Mock-ups in the Design Process

We have always believed in the value of the full-scale mock-up trial in the design process. In our toolkit of design methodologies it offers an un-rivaled way of getting end users & other stakeholders involved. It allows them to visual and spatially see the design in a way that many struggle to with drawings: for example, it is often difficult to visualise the size of a space or the distance between objects. It allows them to interact with the design in real-time: when we design a control room for example, they can pick up a desk and move it; if we want to change the desk we can re-shape it if we've used cardboard as our material.

No CAD or other tool offers these benefits in a way that is as quick or as cheap to deliver. Whilst sometimes sceptical at the outset, almost all our clients see and agree the benefit of the approach when the exercise is completed.

Now it seems we are not alone! In this article ( Airbus gained significant benefits in the design of the XWB fuselage through the use of mock-ups. It allowed them to avoid the mistakes of previous projects which had relied on CAD modelling and for testing future assembly processes.

The lesson seems to be that we have a variety of design tools at our disposal.  The skills is to bring the right ones in for the right purposes and rarely to rely on one method.

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Saturday, 1 May 2010

Our thoughts on recent report on driving and the aging population

A recent report from the RAC Foundation tackled the subject of the older driver and maintaining their mobility.  Entitled "Maintaining safe mobility for the aging population" it covered a number of human factors issues in relation to car design and the design of road signage.

This comprehensive report stands aside from the fear that old drivers kill people and cause others to have accidents. It starts by assuming that the benefits of mobility apply at least as much to older people as to anyone else and looks at older drivers’ habits as well as their accident rates. The question seems to be “Why shouldn’t we impose special rules on older drivers” rather than “Older drivers are less safe – should we limit them?”

There is a careful (and exhaustive) study of actual accident rates involving older drivers, showing that their accident rate is little higher than other drivers and way below that of young, inexperienced drivers. Accident rate per mile driven is higher, but older people drive less, so the actual number of accidents is low. The studies included comparison of differing driver legislation in other countries to evaluate the effects of the law and national culture. It seems that more limiting legislation, as applied in some sountries does not improve road safety significantly – it only limits personal freedom.

A criticism might be that the report doesn’t successfully quantify the contribution of older people’s driving to other drivers’ accidents.

It is interesting to note that older people are more frail than younger people, so accidents to them tend to be more serious; and that if forced on to buses or walking, older people are likely to have more accidents.

The message is simple: Keep older people driving if practicable – it helps to sustain their independence, which is really important for everyone.

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