In this blog post titled: ‘Are people the Strongest AND the Weakest Link?’ CRA Consultant Andy Wright explores the role of Human Factors in system design.
It is a constant area of fascination for ergonomists that people can be so brilliant and equally…well, not.
I should know better. Despite being an ergonomist, I find myself facing my laptop screen using a chair and table that is far too small for me, adopting a wonderfully unhealthy forward slump in front of the screen which has so many lighting issues it was like trying to watch Game of Thrones’ Battle of Winterfell all over again.
I naturally try and correct my bad habits once noticed. But I am reminded again that I, and people in general, are not particularly orderly creatures, and at times we can be rather, well, inconsistent. Despite our best efforts (and those of our lifestyle and fitness apps), we will always have a side to us that is chaotic, unpredictable, and erratic – and that’s just life, after all.
But on the flip side of the coin, we also know that humans possess the ability to be highly creative, imaginative and intuitive. Quite impressively, some of us are perfectly capable of demonstrating traits across both sides of the coin at the same time (you know who you are).
And that’s okay.
Let us consider this – a fairly simple computer program can process thousands of numerical calculations with perfect accuracy within seconds, comfortably. Such a task would be beyond human capabilities. But when it comes to tasks involving creativity, imagination and intuition, the combined efforts of the brightest minds in robotics and artificial intelligence would struggle to compete with the capabilities of your average 5 year old.
Our current attempts at a T-800 would struggle to match the creativity and guile of your everyday 5- year old.
But nonetheless, it’s still so easy for us system designers or analysts to slip into the mindset that we must design against the user; to protect the system against the chaos they could potentially inflict. This mindset views humans as a necessary part of the system but ultimately a problem and this same mindset may try and design out the human in any way possible. And whilst the human factor can of course be a critical contributor to system accidents, it doesn’t have to be the weakest link in the system. With the right design, people can be by far the most powerful barrier to accident prevention.
Providing our system users with the right conditions to thrive can turn them into your strongest link, adding characteristics to your systems such as resilience, flexibility, and the ability to learn and evolve. We should always consider automating tasks which do not suit the capabilities of humans, and let users undertake tasks where they can demonstrate all of the skills that make us unique.
The theme for CRA’s upcoming 10th Risk & Safety Forum is People, Plant and the Planet. Human Factors methods and tools excel at designing for the effective integration of people, plant and their environment (the planet), ensuring not only safe systems but efficient and healthy ones.
As professionals working across the fields such as Safety, Security, Healthcare, Design etc. it’s always useful to remind ourselves that it is entirely up to us as to whether people will be the weakest link in the system, or the strongest.
The Risk & Safety Forum agenda features presentations from a number of organisations including: EDF Energy, Delft University of Technology and Jacobsen Analytics. Attending the Forum is a fantastic opportunity to hear from industry experts, discuss latest developments and challenges and share best practice with Human Factors specialist peers.