Blending Technology with People in The Ergonomics of Tomorrow

Blending Technology with People in The Ergonomics of Tomorrow

ISE Magazine January 2020 Volume: 52 Number: 3

By Bobbie Watts

It has always been in our DNA to strive for a balanced human/system equation. Whether it’s the design of the primitive ax tailored to the shape of the hand or Hippocrates’ surgical tool layout for ease of use, the principles of ergo-nomics are woven through time, even before the Industrial Revolution. In more recent history, we have witnessed changes in industry and society that have challenged this equation’s balance.

From the Industrial Revolution through the Information Age, how workers and consumers interact with their work and products has provided unique challenges to the ergonomics field and done much to shape it into the discipline we see today. Now with industrial and societal changes well underway with Industry 4.0, Factories of the Future ( and general shifts in society, we are primed for even more changes that will alter the work and cultural scene, impact human/system interactions and change the way we approach ergonomics, and at a faster rate than before.

What do ergonomics practitioners, teachers, students, leaders and other influencers need to be prepared for? What is in store for ergonomics in 2020 and beyond?

Industry 4.0 is already changing the view of the factory floor with cur-rent workspaces being reconfigured into cyber-physical spaces. Enabled by digitalization and connectivity through smart technology like industrial inter-net of things (IIoT), this new industrial world is shifting us toward increasing automation, changing the definition of many traditional work roles. How-ever, as opposed to an emphasis on systems designed to completely replace workers, we expect to see a focus on human-machine collaborations in the near future. These collaborations al-ready are emerging on the work floor used as tools to mitigate physical and mental risks and improve productivity and quality for specific tasks.

As examples, collaborative robots (cobots) are sharing workspace with workers and taking on their highly repetitive task duties; virtual and augmented reality tools are being used to enhance training and process information sharing, reducing cognitive loads; and passive exoskeletons are being deployed on assembly lines to support workers, literally, who perform static, awkward work.

Office workspaces are seeing the propagation of collaborative tools as well, such as wearables to influence worker posture and smart glasses to re-place traditional computer screens. Industries’ investment in these tools is on the rise and is predicted to grow. We can expect to see continuous progression in the advancements of their capabilities and their proliferation in the workplace. And as the general public becomes more aware of these techno-logical advancements through news stories, entertainment and advancements in consumer products, it can lead to an expectation of which that industry and ergonomists will need to be mindful.

Whether using full automation or collaborative systems, workers still need to be central to the design and implementation of these tools for effectiveness and sustainability. Of course, designing for and around the human is nothing new for ergonomics. But how do we do it effectively in this rapidly changing new industrial world where the worker and machine are becoming more as one?

Besides being prepared to use our expertise to guide decision-makers on which tasks to automate to achieve the optimal return on investment, ergonomists will need to be prepared to pro-vide guidance on the design of these complex collaborative systems. We need to ensure that sound ergonomics principles are considered in IIoT-connected systems where communication and awareness between the worker and machine in shared spaces will be critical for safety and efficiency. That includes principles such as understanding multiple user expectations and capabilities in human-in-the-loop (HitL) scenarios where the cognitive load will increasingly outweigh the physical load.

In this new industrial world, our goal should not be just to enhance worker performance and safety in these shifting factory landscapes; it should be to take advantage of it as well. With the connectivity of IIoT, we will have tons of data at our fingertips. We need to be prepared to use emerging innovative solutions, such as wearables, advancements in electromyography (EMG), artificial intelligence (AI) and other smart devices, to capture this data – physical, environmental and psychosocial – in real-time. We then can harness that in-formation for faster and more accurate risk analyses and potentially customizable mitigations based on individual worker or machine data via feedback dashboards.

Big data analytics should be considered to further analyze the collective data for trends and insights to guide us into making quicker big-picture decisions. Automating both the data collection and analysis duties will free us to focus more of our efforts on solution development, where our ergonomics expertise is most needed.

Technology is not the only factor altering the future of human/system interactions in the workplace. Separate from automation and digitalization, we see dramatic changes in the workforce itself. The demographics of the working population and the jobs being per-formed are becoming more diverse. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (, the labor force participation rate for the oldest segment of the population (55 and older) is rising. This adds to the challenge of multiple generations – each with their own style of work and motivation – working alongside each other.

Additionally, as populations become more ethnically diverse, dependent on geographical location, so does the workforce. And with flex work, hot desking, telecommuting and the myriad possible workspaces that come with the gig economy, where a worker works is all but standard. Ergonomists will be challenged even more to recognize and mitigate risks with these variables in play. As such, we need to be prepared to manage the balance between the physical and cognitive capabilities of an aging population with the needs of increasing automation. We should be prepared to manage even more non-standard work activities and to enable knowledge-sharing through a variety of media to reach and engage a variety of workers, such as using social-media based tools, microlearning techniques, geofencing or gamification.

Beyond the technical and cultural changes to the work, workers and workspaces, evolving strategies reshaping business initiatives can mean further paradigm shifts for ergonomics in the future. Ergonomists will need to focus their efforts on having a seat at the table with corporate initiatives driven by changes in business and leadership strategies, such as sustainability, digitalization, employee experience, diversity and inclusion, and well-being.

All have far-reaching impacts on ergo-nomics and vice versa.

As these initiatives shift to meet business needs and societal expectations, ergonomists need to be on board. For us to proactively shape business structure, plans and goals for the support of our ergonomics purpose, becoming more embedded in these business initiatives will be more than a “nice to have” in the future; it will be a necessity, especially as businesses transition into cyber-physical spaces.

The future will bring about many changes to the world and consequently our field, aspects of which we are currently managing today. But throughout those changes, we need to hold onto what has brought us success: standard approaches we have used to meet the challenges of the past, such as prevention in design, participatory ergonomics and a proactive systems approach to ergonomics programs. By keeping our finger on the pulse of what’s coming, heeding lessons learned and staying true to our ergo DNA, we will be well prepared for future success.

As an African proverb says: “For tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.”

Source: IISE Magazine March 2020