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The Human Factor approach

Date Released: Tue, 5 April 2011 16:00 +0200

Grappling with issues such as ensuring social justice in the workplace and growing the business demand for ergonomics, the key consideration at ODAM 2011 is the human element in organisational design and management.

Challenges facing ergonomists across the world include both an improvement in life expectancy and in the gross domestic product. But according to Andrew Todd, Chairperson of the Ergonomics Society of South African (ESSA) and a lecturer in the Department of Human Kinetics and Ergonomics (HKE) at Rhodes University, South Africa faces a uniquely different situation.

“Africa has been left behind in terms of the large gap between the poor and the wealthy,” he said. The continent is also part third world and part western world and faces the associated social, economic and industrial challenges that go with this duality. Added to this, the quadruple burden of disease such as HIV, cardiovascular, infectious diseases and violence; and a complex array of work environments, socioeconomic and health statuses mean there are no universal solutions to SA’s challenges.

Given the theme of ODAM 2011, Research for the Missing Link, it is particularly apt that the conference is being hosted in SA. Bringing research and understanding from diverse contexts in a 50/50 mix of delegates from developed and developing countries, it is hoped that ODAM will occasion international collaborations that will help ergonomists find solutions to these challenges. “Ergonomists are in a unique position to make a difference,” said Todd. “It is hoped that we will find the right missing link to the right contexts.”

Michelle Roberts, Chair of the ODAM Technical Committee thanked Matthias Göbel, Head of the HKE Department at Rhodes and ODAM X Conference Chair for his enthusiasm in hosting ODAM for the first time on the African continent. In addition to attracting delegates from some 24 countries, Rhodes also hosted the International Ergonomics Association Council meeting.

Andrew Imada, President of the International Ergonomics Association, said ODAM was one of the most active participants in the IEA. “One of our key values is how broadly we think about problems as ergonomists,” he said.

Describing the importance of taking knowledge, scholarship and learning seriously, particularly with regard their efficacy for economic growth, Rhodes Vice-Chancellor Dr Saleem Badat reiterated that “a skills approach denudes higher education of its wider social value”. Drawing parallels to ODAM’s Human Factors approach, he said that the 150-odd presentations and papers testify to the fact that “there must be a love for social justice and humans that occupies the practice of organisational design and management. “

What is good for the profit margin is not always good for the workers,” he added. “These are not technical or neutral issues and we must ask whose interests we seek to advance when we engage with them.”

Kazutaka Kogi from the Institute for Science and Labour in Kawasaki, Japan, provided Monday’s keynote address. Also the President of the International Commission on Occupational Health, Kogi spoke on the topic of ‘How to support the participatory planning of practical workplace improvements.

Emphasising the importance of social justice in the workplace he said there is a link between participatory planning and risk management. Fast becoming recognised as good practice in industrially developing countries (IDC), participatory action-oriented training aims to identify good practices and actions that have a real impact.

Plenary speaker Jan Dul, of the Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University in The Netherlands, spoke about ‘The future of ergonomics: how to grow business demand for ergonomics.’

Describing how guidelines, standards and legislation have not been effective in creating a business interest in ergonomics, he said the field did not have a well-defined future unless the business value of ergonomics was demonstrated. “Mandatory ergonomics is necessary to protect people,” he said, acknowledging the need for ergonomics knowledge to interface between operations and human resource management. “But the best model is to link ergonomics to business strategies and goals.”

Following Sunday’s three pre-conference workshops on office ergonomics, guidelines for occupational health practice in IDCs and visual display terminals, conference proceedings kicked off with parallel sessions on ergonomics and management, ergonomics quality in design and affective design, human factors in the construction industry and in IDCs.

The afternoon’s highlights included workshops and interactive sessions on worker participation in the mining industry, and airport ergonomics and the design of baggage handling systems. Other topics under discussion included cultural ergonomics and safety, the application of ergonomics design and human fatigue.

By Kerry Peter