16 PHI KAPPA PHI FORUM
We work in mostly engineered environments, such as offices or manufacturing
plants, air traffic control centers, airplanes, automobiles, and trucks.
Making a poor decision with the way we set up our environment may result
in inefficiency and cause a company to go bankrupt; cause injury to employees,
customers, or innocent bystanders; the loss of one or more lives; or damage to the
planet itself. We might place a glass jar containing a dangerous chemical in a place
where it might fall and break; arrange and order our supplies inefficiently so that we
are making numerous unnecessary trips to the warehouse using excessive fossil fuels;
lift heavy objects without proper support; have a process so highly automated that
if/when it fails the human operators do not know what to do.
To prevent inefficiency, injury, and perhaps damage to the planet, we need to design
the environment (and all of the equipment in it) to be safe and easy for people to use
and be sure people in the environment are well-trained and follow safety procedures,
but can also think and react.
There is a profession called human factors, ergonomics, or user experience
designers. These professionals study how people think and process information
(psychology), how people move (anthropometrics), and engineering design to
make the engineered part of our environment as safe as possible. Other people
use equipment combined with nature in their jobs and are dependent upon the
equipment being made as safe as possible. These people may also need training in
both use of the equipment and the natural environment.
Earth was endangered almost forty years ago when the Three Mile Island Nuclear
Power Plant in Pennsylvania nearly leaked radioactive waste. The near-disaster was
due in large part to equipment that was not designed for operators to use safely.
Relatively recently, Capt. Chesley Sullenberger safely landed a US Airways
passenger jet in the Hudson River in freezing weather; everyone survived and
injuries were minimized. The captain was well-trained in emergency procedures.
He recognized immediately that his plane encountered birds and the engines were
no longer functioning. He then relied upon his lifetime of studying good and poor
human decisions. He was familiar with the geography where he was flying to the
point that he knew exactly where to land the plane so that ferry boats could quickly
rescue the passengers. He knew how to prioritize, saving people rather than trying
to save the plane. He effectively communicated to his passengers and crew that they
needed to brace.
In more normal operations, pilots can and do use checklists to be sure planes are
ready for operations. Less dramatically, when I pack my supplies for my programs
WORKING AGAINST DISASTER
RONALD G. SHAPIRO ( The Ohio State University)
is a speaker and consultant in career development,
leadership development, and human factors/ergonomics.
He is a graduate of the University of Rochester and
Ohio State. He worked at IBM and writes for a variety
of publications and speaks on college campuses and at
conventions. Email him at DrRonShapiro@gmail.com.
at client sites, I use checklists to be
sure I have packed everything needed.
During my programs, I show people
what happens when they try to move
too fast and do not, for example, allow
enough distance to apply brakes to
a moving vehicle in an emergency
and risk crashing the vehicle. Still,
professionals cannot be so dependent
upon the checklists that they cannot
think and function effectively in
In summary, the key points to
remember are that our Earth will be
preserved best if:
1) Equipment is properly designed
so that people can use it;
2) People are properly trained to use
the equipment and work in the natural
3) People are also properly prepared
to be able to think, not just follow
checklists, so that they can respond
quickly in an emergency.
I would like to thank Dr. Margarita
Posada Cossuto for helpful comments.