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Monday, 07 March 2011 19:01

Ergonomics and Standardization

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Origins

Standardization in the field of ergonomics has a relatively short history. It started in the beginning of the 1970s when the first committees were founded on the national level (e.g., in Germany within the standardization institute DIN), and it continued on an international level after the foundation of the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) TC (Technical Committee) 159 “Ergonomics”, in 1975. In the meantime ergonomics standardization takes place on regional levels as well, for example, on the European level within the CEN (Commission européenne de normalisation), which established its TC 122 “Ergonomics” in 1987. The existence of the latter committee underscores the fact that one of the important reasons for establishing committees for the standardization of ergonomics knowledge and principles can be found in legal (and quasi-legal) regulations, especially with respect to safety and health, which require the application of ergonomics principles and findings in the design of products and work systems. National laws requiring the application of well-established ergonomics findings were the reason for the establishment of the German ergonomics committee in 1970, and European Directives, especially the Machinery Directive (relating to safety standards), were responsible for establishing an ergonomics committee on the European level. Since legal regulations usually are not, cannot and should not be very specific, the task of specifying which ergonomics principles and findings should be applied was given to or taken up by ergonomics standardization committees. Especially on the European level, it can be recognized that ergonomics standardization can contribute to the task of providing for broad and comparable conditions of machinery safety, thus removing barriers to the free trade of machinery within the continent itself.

Perspectives

Ergonomics standardization thus started with a strong protective, although preventive, perspective, with ergonomics standards being developed with the aim of protecting workers against adverse effects at different levels of health protection. Ergonomics standards were thus prepared with the following intentions in view:

  • to ensure that assigned tasks do not exceed the limits of the performance capacities of the worker
  • to prevent injury or any detrimental effects to the health of the worker whether permanent or transient, either in the short or in the long run, even if the tasks in question can be performed, if only for a short time, without negative effects
  • to provide that tasks and working conditions will not lead to impairments, even if recuperation is possible with time.

 

International standardization, which was not so closely coupled to legislation, on the other hand, always also tried to open a perspective in the direction of producing standards which would go beyond the prevention of and protection against adverse effects (e.g., by specifying minimal/maximal values) and instead proactively provide for optimal working conditions to promote the well-being and personal development of the worker, as well as the effectiveness, efficiency, reliability and productivity of the work system.

This is a point where it becomes evident that ergonomics, and especially ergonomics standardization, has very distinct social and political dimensions. Whereas the protective approach with respect to safety and health is generally accepted and agreed upon among the parties involved (employers, unions, administration and ergonomics experts) for all levels of standardization, the proactive approach is not equally accepted by all parties in the same way. This might be due to the fact that, especially where legislation requires the application of ergonomics principles (and thus either explicitly or implicitly the application of ergonomics standards), some parties feel that such standards might limit their freedom of action or negotiation. Since international standards are less compelling (transferring them into the body of national standards is at the discretion of the national standardization committees) the proactive approach has been developed furthest at the international level of ergonomics standardization.

The fact that certain regulations would indeed restrict the discretion of those to whom they applied served to discourage standardization in certain areas, for example in connection with the European Directives under Article 118a of the Single European Act, relating to safety and health in the use and operation of machinery at the workplace, and in the design of work systems and workplace design. On the other hand, under the Directives issued under Article 100a, relating to safety and health in the design of machinery with regard to the free trade of this machinery within the European Union (EU), European ergonomics standardization is mandated by the European Commission.

From an ergonomics point of view, however, it is difficult to understand why ergonomics in the design of machinery should be different from that in the use and operation of machinery within a work system. It is thus to be hoped that the distinction will be given up in the future, since it seems to be more detrimental than beneficial to the development of a consistent body of ergonomics standards.

Types of Ergonomics Standards

The first international ergonomics standard to have been developed (based on a German DIN national standard) is ISO 6385, “Ergonomic principles in the design of work systems”, published in 1981. It is the basic standard of the ergonomics standards series and set the stage for the standards which followed by defining the basic concepts and stating the general principles of the ergonomic design of work systems, including tasks, tools, machinery, workstations, work space, work environment and work organization. This international standard, which is now undergoing revision, is a guideline standard, and as such provides guidelines to be followed. It does not, however, provide technical or physical specifications which have to be met. These can be found in a different type of standards, that is, specification standards, for example, those on anthropometry or thermal conditions. Both types of standards fulfil different functions. While guideline standards intend to show their users “what to do and how to do it” and indicate those principles that must or should be observed, for example, with respect to mental workload, specification standards provide users with detailed information about safety distances or measurement procedures, for example, that have to be met and where compliance with these prescriptions can be tested by specified procedures. This is not always possible with guideline standards, although despite their relative lack of specificity it can usually be demonstrated when and where guidelines have been violated. A subset of specification standards are “database” standards, which provide the user with relevant ergonomics data, for example, body dimensions.

CEN standards are classified as A-, B- and C-type standards, depending on their scope and field of application. A-type standards are general, basic standards which apply to all kinds of applications, B-type standards are specific for an area of application (which means that most of the ergonomics standards within the CEN will be of this type), and C-type standards are specific for a certain kind of machinery, for example, hand-held drilling machines.

Standardization Committees

Ergonomics standards, like other standards, are produced in the appropriate technical committees (TCs), their subcommittees (SCs) or working groups (WGs). For the ISO this is TC 159, for CEN it is TC 122, and on the national level, the respective national committees. Besides the ergonomics committees, ergonomics is also dealt with in TCs working on machine safety (e.g., CEN TC 114 and ISO TC 199) with which liaison and close cooperation is maintained. Liaisons are also established with other committees for which ergonomics might be of relevance. Responsibility for ergonomics standards, however, is reserved to the ergonomics committees themselves.

A number of other organizations are engaged in the production of ergonomics standards, such as the IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission); CENELEC, or the respective national committees in the electrotechnical field; CCITT (Comité consultative international des organisations téléphoniques et télégraphiques) or ETSI (European Telecommunication Standards Institute) in the field of telecommunications; ECMA (European Computer Manufacturers Association) in the field of computer systems; and CAMAC (Computer Assisted Measurement and Control Association) in the field of new technologies in manufacturing, to name only a few. With some of these the ergonomics committees do have liaisons in order to avoid duplication of work or inconsistent specifications; with some organizations (e.g., the IEC) even joint technical committees are established for cooperation in areas of mutual interest. With other committees, however, there is no coordination or cooperation at all. The main purpose of these committees is to produce (ergonomics) standards that are specific to their field of activity. Since the number of such organizations at the different levels is rather large, it becomes quite complicated (if not impossible) to carry out a complete overview of ergonomics standardization. The present review will therefore be restricted to ergonomics standardization in the international and European ergonomics committees.

Structure of Standardization Committees

Ergonomics standardization committees are quite similar to one another in structure. Usually one TC within a standardization organization is responsible for ergonomics. This committee (e.g., ISO TC 159) mainly has to do with decisions about what should be standardized (e.g., work items) and how to organize and coordinate the standardization within the committee, but usually no standards are prepared at this level. Below the TC level are other committees. For example, the ISO has subcommittees (SCs), which are responsible for a defined field of standardization: SC 1 for general ergonomic guiding principles, SC 3 for anthropometry and biomechanics, SC 4 for human-system interaction and SC 5 for the physical work environment. CEN TC 122 has working groups (WGs) below the TC level which are so constituted as to deal with specified fields within ergonomics standardization. SCs within ISO TC 159 operate as steering committees for their field of responsibility and do the first voting, but usually they do not also prepare standards. This is done in their WGs, which are composed of experts nominated by their national committees, whereas SC and TC meetings are attended by national delegations representing national points of view. Within the CEN, duties are not sharply distinguished at the WG level; WGs operate both as steering and production committees, although a good deal of work is accomplished in ad hoc groups, which are composed of members of the WG (nominated by their national committees) and established to prepare the drafts for a standard. WGs within an ISO SC are established to do the practical standardization work, that is, prepare drafts, work on comments, identify needs for standardization, and prepare proposals to the SC and TC, which will then take the appropriate decisions or actions.

Preparation of Ergonomics Standards

The preparation of ergonomics standards has changed quite markedly within the last years in view of the stronger emphasis now being placed on European and other international developments. In the beginning, national standards, which had been prepared by experts from one country in their national committee and agreed upon by the interested parties among the general public of that country in a specified voting procedure, were transferred as input to the responsible SC and WG of ISO TC 159, after a formal vote had been taken at the TC level that such an international standard should be prepared. The working group, composed of ergonomics experts (and experts from politically interested parties) from all participating member bodies (i.e., the national standardization organizations) of TC 159 who were willing to cooperate in this work project, would then work on any inputs and prepare a working draft (WD). After this draft proposal is agreed upon in the WG, it becomes a committee draft (CD), which is distributed to the member bodies of the SC for approval and comments. If the draft receives substantial support from the SC member bodies (i.e., if at least two-thirds vote in favour) and after comments by the national committees have been incorporated by the WG in the improved version, a Draft International Standard (DIS) is submitted for voting to all members of TC 159. If substantial support, at this step from the member bodies of the TC, is achieved (and perhaps after incorporating editorial changes), this version will then be published as an International Standard (IS) by the ISO. Voting of the member bodies at the TC and SC level is based on voting at the national level, and comments can be supplied through the member bodies by experts or interested parties in each country. The procedure is roughly equivalent in CEN TC 122, with the exception that there are no SCs below the TC level and that voting takes part with weighted votes (according to the size of the country) whereas within the ISO the rule is one country, one vote. If a draft fails at any step, and unless the WG decides that an agreeable revision cannot be achieved, it has to be revised and then has to pass through the voting procedure again.

International standards are then transferred into national standards if the national committees vote accordingly. By contrast, European Standards (ENs) have to be transferred into national standards by the CEN members and conflicting national standards have to be withdrawn. That means that harmonized ENs will be effective in all CEN countries (and, due to their influence on trade, will be relevant to manufacturers in all other countries who intend to sell goods to a customer in a CEN country).

ISO-CEN Cooperation

In order to avoid conflicting standards and duplication of work and to allow non-CEN members to take part in developments in the CEN, a cooperative agreement between the ISO and the CEN has been achieved (the so-called Vienna Agreement) which regulates the formalities and provides for a so-called parallel voting procedure, which allows the same drafts to be voted upon in the CEN and the ISO in parallel, if the responsible committees agree to do so. Among the ergonomics committees the tendency is quite clear: avoid duplication of work (manpower and financial resources are too limited), avoid conflicting specifications, and try to achieve a consistent body of ergonomics standards based on a division of labour. Whereas CEN TC 122 is bound by the decisions of the EU administration and gets mandated work items to stipulate the specifications of European directives, ISO TC 159 is free to standardize whatever it thinks necessary or appropriate in the field of ergonomics. This has led to shifts in the emphasis of both committees, with the CEN concentrating on machinery and safety-related topics and the ISO concentrating on areas where broader market interests than Europe are concerned (e.g., work with VDUs and control-room design for process and related industries); on areas where the operation of machinery is concerned, as in work system design; and on such areas as work environment and work organization as well. The intention, however, is to transfer work results from the CEN to the ISO, and vice versa, in order to build up a body of consistent ergonomics standards which in fact are effective all over the world.

The formal procedure of producing standards is still the same today. But since the emphasis has shifted more and more to the international or the European level, more and more activities are being transferred to these committees. Drafts are now usually worked out directly in these committees and are no longer based on existing national standards. After the decision has been made that a standard should be developed, work directly starts at one of these supranational levels, based on whatever input there may be available, sometimes starting from zero. This changes the role of the national ergonomics committees quite dramatically. While heretofore they formally developed their own national standards according to their national rules, they now have the task of observing and influencing standardization on the supranational levels—via the experts who work out the standards or via comments made at the different steps of voting (within the CEN, a national standardization project will be halted if a comparable project is being simultaneously worked on at the CEN level). This makes the task still more complicated, since this influence can only be exerted indirectly and since the preparation of ergonomics standards is not just a matter of pure science but a matter of bargaining, consensus and agreement (not least due to the political implications which the standard might have). This, of course, is one of the reasons why the process of producing an international or European ergonomics standard usually takes several years and why ergonomics standards cannot reflect the latest state of the art in ergonomics. International ergonomics standards thus have to be examined every five years, and, if necessary, undergo revision.

Fields of Ergonomics Standardization

International ergonomics standardization started with guidelines on the general principles of ergonomics in the design of work systems; they were laid down in ISO 6385, which is now under revision in order to incorporate new developments. The CEN has produced a similar basic standard (EN 614, Part 1, 1994)—this is oriented more to machinery and safety—and is preparing a standard with guidelines on task design as a second part of this basic standard. The CEN thus emphasizes the importance of operator tasks in the design of machinery or work systems, for which appropriate tools or machinery have to be designed.

Another area where concepts and guidelines have been laid down in standards is the field of mental workload. ISO 10075, Part 1, defines terms and concepts (e.g., fatigue, monotony, reduced vigilance), and Part 2 (at the stage of a DIS in the latter half of the 1990s) provides guidelines for the design of work systems with respect to mental workload in order to avoid impairments.

SC 3 of ISO TC 159 and WG 1 of CEN TC 122 produce standards on anthropometry and biomechanics, covering, among other topics, methods of anthropometric measurements, body dimensions, safety distances and access dimensions, the evaluation of working postures and the design of workplaces in relation to machinery, recommended limits of physical strength and problems of manual handling.

SC 4 of ISO 159 shows how technological and social changes affect ergonomics standardization and the programme of such a subcommittee. SC 4 started as “Signals and Controls” by standardizing principles for displaying information and designing control actuators, with one of its work items being the visual display unit (VDU), used for office tasks. It soon became apparent, however, that standardizing the ergonomics of VDUs would not be sufficient, and that standardization “around” this workstation—in the sense of a work system—was required, covering areas such as hardware (e.g., the VDU itself, including displays, keyboards, non-keyboard input devices, workstations), work environment (e.g., lighting), work organization (e.g., task requirements), and software (e.g., dialogue principles, menu and direct manipulation dialogues). This led to a multipart standard (ISO 9241) covering “ergonomic requirements for office work with VDUs” with at the moment 17 parts, 3 of which have reached the status of an IS already. This standard will be transferred to the CEN (as EN 29241) which will specify requirements for the VDU directive (90/270 EEC) of the EU—although this is a directive under article 118a of the Single European Act. This series of standards provides guidelines as well as specifications, depending on the subject of the given part of the standard, and introduces a new concept of standardization, the user performance approach, which might help to solve some of the problems in ergonomics standardization. It is described more fully in the chapter Visual Display Units .

The user performance approach is based on the idea that the aim of standardization is to prevent impairment and to provide for optimal working conditions for the operator, but not to establish technical specification per se. Specification is thus regarded only as a means to the end of unimpaired, optimal user performance. The important thing is to achieve this unimpaired performance of the operator, regardless of whether a certain physical specification is met. This requires that the unimpaired operator performance which has to be achieved, for example, reading performance on a VDU, must be specified in the first place, and second, that technical specifications be developed which will enable the desired performance to be achieved, based on the available evidence. The manufacturer is then free to follow these technical specifications, which will ensure that the product complies with the ergonomics requirements. Or he may demonstrate, by comparison with a product that is known to fulfil the requirements (either by compliance with the technical specifications of the standard or by proven performance), that with the new product the performance requirements are equally or better fulfilled than with the reference product, with or without compliance to the technical specifications of the standard. A test procedure which has to be followed for demonstrating conformance with the user performance requirements of the standard is specified in the standard.

This approach helps to overcome two problems. Standards, by virtue of their specifications, which are based on the state of the art (and technology) at the time of preparation of the standard, can restrict new developments. Specifications that are based on a certain technology (e.g., cathode-ray tubes) may be inappropriate for other technologies. Independently of technology, however, the user of a display device (for instance) should be able to read and understand the information displayed effectively and efficiently without any impairments, irrespective of whatever technique may be used. Performance in this case must, however, not be restricted to the pure output (as measured in terms of speed or accuracy) but must include considerations of comfort and effort as well.

The second problem that can be dealt with by this approach is the problem of interactions between conditions. Physical specification usually is unidimensional, leaving other conditions out of consideration. In the case of interactive effects, however, this can be misleading or even wrong. By specifying performance requirements, on the other hand, and leaving the means to achieve these to the manufacturer, any solution that satisfies these performance requirements will be acceptable. Treating specification as a means to an end thus represents a genuine ergonomic perspective.

Another standard with a work system approach is under preparation in SC 4, which relates to the design of control rooms, for instance, for process industries or power stations. A multipart standard (ISO 11064) is expected to be prepared as a result, with the different parts dealing with such aspects of control-room design as layout, operator workstation design, and the design of displays and input devices for process control. Because these work items and the approach taken clearly exceed problems of the design of “displays and controls”, SC 4 has been renamed “Human-System Interaction”.

Environmental problems, especially those relating to thermal conditions and communication in noisy environments, are dealt with in SC 5, where standards have been or are being prepared on measurement methods, methods for the estimation of heat stress, conditions of thermal comfort, metabolic heat production, and on auditory and visual danger signals, speech interference level and the assessment of speech communication.

CEN TC 122 covers roughly the same fields of ergonomics standardization, although with a different emphasis and a different structure of its working groups. It is intended, however, that by a division of labour between the ergonomics committees, and mutual acceptance of work results, a general and usable set of ergonomics standards will be developed.

 

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