While many companies have mastered physical and environmental ergonomics involved in workplace safety, applying the principles of cognitive ergonomics remains more of a challenge. (Learn more in 8 Key Areas of Ergonomics Employers Must Consider).

What Is Cognitive Ergonomics?

Cognitive ergonomics is the ergonomics of mental processes. With respect to workplace safety, cognitive ergonomics focuses on the interactions between human beings and the tasks, environmental conditions, and machines they encounter. Ideally, cognitive ergonomics can be used to design work environments and conditions that maximize cognitive function and performance. It largely focuses on improving functionality and reducing human error.

Understanding how perception, reasoning, memory, and motor response affect your workers and their jobs can serve to transform your workplace safety program.

How Cognitive Ergonomics Affects Worker Safety

Research and application of cognitive ergonomics has traditionally focused on human interaction with large, complex machinery such as nuclear power plants and airplane cockpit design. There is a good reason for this. Human error has been cited as a contributing factor in many high-profile accidents such as Three Mile Island and the Challenger explosion, along with numerous airline accidents.

Human error is also a major factor in accidents in every industry from aviation to healthcare to construction. Human cognition-related errors are also largely responsible for the data breaches and finance issues that have plagued several companies.

Numerous studies have found a direct correlation between workplace accidents and injuries and worker distraction, inattention, and mental errors. In critical situations, researchers have observed a phenomenon known as cognitive lockup, where workers focus on an initial failure and ignore any subsequent failures, causing the situation to quickly get out of control. Security experts also say that the majority of data breaches and data loss are caused by human error.

How Can Cognitive Ergonomics Help?

Cognitive ergonomics can enhance safety programs and worker safety at numerous levels including:

  • Diagnosis of issues and problems
  • Workload efficiency and maximization
  • Situation awareness
  • Decision making — both long-term, short-term and critical
  • Planning for tasks, assignments, layout and design.
  • Training of workers and supervisors

The Interaction Of Man And Machine

While automation has certainly helped mitigate human error in tasks, humans are still largely responsible for ensuring the reliability, accuracy, and proper functioning of the machinery and workplace systems themselves. Their ability to interact efficiently, productively, and safely with machines and systems is critical.

Here are a few tips for creating a safety program that accounts for cognitive ergonomics.

  • Consider the domain of the workplace or the constraints and opportunities of the environment you work in.
  • Ensure your safety program considers the demands of the specific work your employees are doing and considers user strategies in performing cognitive tasks.
  • Consider the competencies and cognitive limitations of your workers in their interactions with the system. Include attention, perception errors, strategies and cognitive workload, or the effort used by working memory in the completion of tasks.
  • Examine the limitations and constraints of the tools or artifacts used in the workplace and how these might affect the user and the user’s interactions with both the workplace and the tools.
  • Design both tools and human-machine interfaces that will allow humans to perform at peak capacity, even when information is unreliable, unexpected events occur, goals conflict or time constraints are in effect.
  • Consider human over-reliance on machines or a potential lack of trust in machines, as both can have an impact on safety. This will become increasingly critical as workplace machines and systems become increasingly sophisticated.
  • Put into place hiring and screening practices which emphasize cognitive abilities. For example, some people exhibit a higher working memory capacity or attention spans, qualities which help you avoid errors that result from inattention or cognitive lockdown.

Putting Cognitive Ergonomics Into Practice

From a practical standpoint, cognitive ergonomics can help you avoid critical errors and ensure safety. Here are a few of the more practical applications for cognitive ergonomics that could potentially be included in your workplace safety program:

  • Signage with designs and colors that maximize comprehension and compliance (certain color combinations and fonts are easier to read)
  • Work environments that make catastrophic errors difficult (or impossible) — for example, by creating two-step processes or placing critical controls in safe places
  • Work and task planning that considers both cognitive workload and human reliability — repetitive tasks can, for example, decrease attentiveness, which can lead to error
  • Adjustment of lighting or glare to ensure better readability (Learn more in Lighting Ergonomics 101)
  • Consistency in the design of system controls to ensure employees react consistently to emergencies
  • Training programs that consider the limitations of human memory and the way in which people learn, process, and apply information
  • Alarm systems that suppress minor alarms in order to allow critical alarms to be heard

Cognitive Ergonomics And An Effective Workplace Safety Program

An effective workplace safety program, is in the end, really about ensuring that all the moving parts in your workplace are functioning in sync. (Learn more in 5 Ergonomics Concepts All Employers Should Know And Understand). A critical part of this is the human component and how humans interact with all the varied components of your workplace.