How tech and intuitive design are changing physically-demanding workplaces

  • The technology that underpins the buildings we live and work in is changing.
  • Intuitive design that takes the strain off our bodies is also important. 

a tractor parked in the dirt: The Cat 950M Wheel Loaders have been fitted with joysticks instead of steering wheels.

© Provided by CNBC
The Cat 950M Wheel Loaders have been fitted with joysticks instead of steering wheels.

From voice-activated televisions to monitoring devices that automate lighting in offices, the technology that underpins the buildings we live and work in is changing.


Load Error

This shift is also apparent in the way buildings are constructed and how industrial sites are run, with tweaks in design and new pieces of technology having a significant effect on day-to-day activities.

Ergonomics — also known as “human factors” — refers to how people interact with the systems around them, and is of increasing importance in all workplaces, including physically-demanding industries.

One example of a seemingly small change which has had a big impact can be found at a recycling depot in Nottinghamshire, England. Here, Veolia and Finning UK & Ireland have been trialing vehicles that use joysticks, instead of steering wheels.

The idea behind using the two Cat 950M Wheel Loaders is not just to make it easier for operators to steer the vehicle and boost visibility; the joysticks are also designed to be ergonomically better than a fixed steering wheel, making it more comfortable.

In a statement, Robert Oliphant, who heads up fleet and support services at Veolia UK & Ireland, said the joystick was “very intuitive” and meant “the machine basically goes were you point it.” 

The importance of design

Amanda Widdowson is president of the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (CIEHF). “We fit technology to people, rather than the other way around,” she told CNBC via email.

“In physically demanding industries, ergonomics advice reduces manual-handling risks, for example, by considering body posture, speed of work and rest breaks. It helps us understand when, and what, to automate.”

Widdowson went on to explain that the ergonomic design of equipment controls and displays takes into account a person’s body size and strength in addition to “their experiences with other equipment in their personal and professional lives.”

“Specialist tools allow us to predict and mitigate the likelihood of error in a given scenario,” she said. “In this way systems are safer by design.”

Simple solutions and interesting tech

The deployment of equipment designed to take the strain off workers has become an important part of how businesses operate. 

Pallet jacks that use hydraulics to load and transport heavy items have become a common sight at building sites, factories and warehouses, for example.

Innovative digital technology also has a role to play in the design of work tools used in physically-demanding jobs that require both attention to detail and brute force.

Take the mining industry: In recent years, major firms such as BHP have deployed fully-autonomous trucks and used wearable caps to analyze employees’ brainwaves and monitor fatigue.

Within the energy sector, meanwhile, remote-controlled drones are now used to inspect assets including solar farms and offshore rigs.

Widdowson told CNBC that ergonomists had been studying the interaction between people and technology since the 1950s, adding that the application of such knowledge was “at the heart of the discipline.”

“As technology develops, so does our understanding of the way we interact with it,” she added, citing the design and adoption of unmanned vehicles as one example. 

“Although this equipment can relieve physical operator burden and reduce the risk to human life, it inevitably creates new challenges,” she said.

“Here the interface needs to be designed to ensure the operator has good situational awareness of the remote vehicle. Controls need to be responsive to operator commands and expectations.”

Finding a balance

While tech is undoubtedly becoming more sophisticated, there are clear issues that need to be addressed, including the attentiveness of human operators.

“If a person’s task becomes too automated, we start to see vigilance effects — errors caused by a loss of attention and an increase in boredom,” Widdowson noted.

“We have also found that people working in a highly-automated environment, with very little to do, are less able to respond when things go wrong, compared to those in more manual jobs.”

The application of ergonomics, she said, would help to “ensure the appropriate balance between people and technology.”

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