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Dr Jennifer Long: Vision@WORK+play: Climate Ergonomics

Windfarm with orange coloured sky

While world leaders debated strategies for tackling climate change at the COP26 conference in Glasgow, Scotland in November 2021, I pondered “what role can ergonomics play in this issue?”

As chance would have it, I attended the Human Factors & Ergonomics Society of Australia (HFESA) Annual (virtual) Conference on 8-9 November 2021. Ryan Gamble, from the United Kingdom, presented a paper about Climate Ergonomics during the same session that I was presenting.

A piece of the ergonomics / climate change puzzle fell into place for me!

In this blog I interview Ryan to find out more about Climate Ergonomics.

Jennifer Long: Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed for this blog, Ryan. The term “Climate Ergonomics” is new. Can you please tell me a little bit more about it?

Ryan Gamble: The purpose of Climate Ergonomics is to understand and explore the interactions between humans and the Earth’s climate. It uses ergonomics and human factors (EHF) theories, data and methods to optimise human and climate well-being.

JL: In 2017 Andrew Thatcher was a keynote speaker at the HFESA conference in Wollongong, Australia. He spoke about Green Ergonomics. Why have you coined the new term “Climate Ergonomics”?

RG: Andrew Thatcher is a pioneer who has blended the worlds of ergonomics and sustainability (Thatcher 2012). He and his collaborators have amalgamated more than a decade’s worth of theoretical and empirical investigations into this topic. Thatcher’s Green Ergonomics work has focussed on sustainability and climate conscious efforts in ergonomics practice.

We coined the term “Climate Ergonomics” to reinvigorate interest, where interest in Green Ergonomics in the United Kingdom may have wavered.

Climate Ergonomics has a broad focus and considers all human interactive processes within Earth’s climate and ecosystems. Thatcher’s work laid the foundation for Climate Ergonomics. But really, Green Ergonomics and Climate Ergonomics co-exist as sister-fields.

JL: When did the concept of Climate Ergonomics take hold?

RG: The Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (CIEHF) in the UK made a call for papers related to climate-based work for its 2020 annual conference. The only paper submitted under this theme was a study conducted by our team looking at air pollution. Over the next year we started to build a community of EHF professionals in the UK interested in climate-based work.

JL: In your HFESA conference paper you presented the results of a roundtable discussion with subject matter experts from academia, industry and government. What are some of the key findings from this research?

RG: I presented the results of a qualitative enquiry we conducted in the UK Summer this year. The results suggested that “Climate Ergonomics” was a necessary term that could be used for climate-based endeavours within EHF. Eight key areas were identified that require further exploratory work: culture; inaction of people; development or repurposing of relevant measures and tools; supporting industry; motivations and value; governmental failure; the position of EHF in climate change; and social injustice.

Now that we have identified these areas, we hope that it will help climate conscious EHF professionals decide the areas they would like to support.

JL: The WORK journal by-line is prevention-assessment-rehabilitation, that is, prevention comes before rehabilitation. How do you think Climate Ergonomics fits in with this model?

RG: That’s an interesting question. Climate Ergonomics obviously can’t reverse the damage that human over-exploitation has caused. Therefore, I think the best way to conceptualise Climate Ergonomics into the WORK by-line is to consider that we are preventing further damage to the planet. For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2021) calls to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees. When this temperature is reached, we can then assess the situation and interactions using Climate Ergonomics strategies.

Rehabilitation could also be considered the by-product of the prevention measures. However, the best way of conceptualising this would be to further invest in schemes and initiatives that can help support limiting global warming, such as Net Zero.

JL: This sounds like we need to have a new way of thinking.

RG: Yes, I think this is correct. Climate change is a unique crisis that doesn’t necessarily align with many of the processes that we currently have. And unfortunately, the damage we have done is irreparable – an idea we often avoid in systems processes and thinking.

What we may need is a systems-thinking model that correctly conceptualises the work processes of Climate Ergonomics, while accepting that the human decisions (which we may think of as “errors”) have already done irreparable damage.

JL: I understand that you are on a working group within the CIEHF to develop a strategy for how Climate Ergonomics can be embedded into everyday business. Can you please share with us some of the ways that businesses can incorporate Climate Ergonomics?

RG: We published a guide for businesses to embed sustainability in October 2021. The guide follows a 5-step process so businesses can start embedding climate conscious behaviours into everyday practice using a systems-thinking approach. In brief, the steps are:

  1. Scope the system. Establish what the business would like to change, establish what are the boundaries and limitations to their actions, and what internal and external factors need to be considered.
  2. Understand your influence. Consider how this will affect the business’ proposed change or amendment to practice.
  3. Develop a climate measurement model. Baseline current performance, consider all possible interventions or changes that could be made, and, where possible, collect data for each variable or parameter.
  4. Implement change.
  5. Measure the variable that has changed and assess and communicate the findings.

Ideally, businesses will reflect on the process they have adopted so that steps 4 and 5 become cyclical.

JL: How do you see Climate Ergonomics panning out in the future?

RG: We expect that social injustice will be an important area of our future work. We are investigating how climate change reinforces social injustice, and how we can design systems that are more beneficial for the planet as well as for marginalised communities that are already heavily affected by the changing climate.

We hope to see more attention given to Climate Ergonomics in the future, both within the EHF community as well as in the broader community. That is one of the reasons we have been trying to develop a network of EHF professionals in the UK who are interested in this field.

There is no external funding for this work. We’ve been working with the CIEHF to develop the professional networks and create the guide for businesses because we believe that it is important work that needs to be undertaken.

JL: Thank you very much, Ryan, for agreeing to be interviewed for this blog. Good luck with your work and with increasing the profile of Climate Ergonomics.

RG: Thanks very much, Jennifer.

 

References

Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (2021) Climate Ergonomics: embedding sustainability into everyday business. https://www.ergonomics.org.uk/Public/Think/Issue-21/Supporting-the-green-revolution.aspx

Thatcher, A (2012) Green Ergonomics: definition and scope. Ergonomics. 56 (3): 389-398. https://doi.org/10.1080/00140139.2012.718371.

 

Ryan Gamble is a Senior Researcher and Human Factors Consultant, working at K Sharp Ltd in Wales, United Kingdom. https://www.linkedin.com/in/ryan-gamble-11b768205/

Jennifer Long is a writer, speaker and Certified Professional Ergonomist based in Sydney, Australia. https://www.linkedin.com/in/jennifer-long-visual-ergonomics/

Photo by Karsten Würth (️ @karsten.wuerth) on Unsplash