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Human-Centred Safety®- The Importance of Cognitive Ergonomics in Workplace Health and Safety

Most people are familiar with the concept of ergonomics in the workplace; it's often considered a vital aspect of any robust workplace safety program. But have you ever stopped to think about cognitive ergonomics?

In today's volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world, prioritising employees' physical and psychological well-being is crucial. Such emphasis ensures optimal productivity while maintaining a positive, physically and psychologically safe working environment where everyone can bring their whole authentic selves to their work. Feel valued, have a sense of purpose and belonging, thrive and go home safe and well each day. And while physical safety measures have been a long-standing priority in most workplaces as we see an increased focus on managing psychosocial hazards and risks, the equally important concept of cognitive ergonomics is only now gaining its deserved recognition.

Cognitive ergonomics focuses on refining the interaction between individuals and their work environments. It aims to enhance mental processes like perception, attention, memory, and decision-making. Interestingly, 'failures' in these elements (i.e. X didn't have their mind on the task, X was complacent, X wasn't concentrating, X made a wrong decision, X didn't remember their training etc.) are often reported as the root causes or contributing factors of numerous workplace incidents. This article delves into what cognitive ergonomics entails and why it should be considered a cornerstone of workplace health and safety strategies.

Understanding Cognitive Ergonomics:

At its core, ergonomics is the science of tailoring a workplace to the user's needs, striving to augment efficiency and productivity while diminishing discomfort. When we discuss ergonomics, images of adjustable office chairs, optimally positioned desks, strategically angled computer monitors, and considerations for eye strain and wrist pain from typing come to mind.

But another dimension to this science warrants equal attention - cognitive ergonomics. This growing scientific discipline is dedicated to designing work environments to support and enhance human cognitive function.

So what is Cognitive ergonomics? Cognitive ergonomics is a scientific discipline that draws on a diverse knowledge base from fields like psychology, neuroscience, human factors, and human-computer interaction, aiming to optimise the interaction between individuals and their work tasks. The end goal? To design a work environment that supports and enhances human cognition by easing mental workload, facilitating improved information processing, and promoting more effective decision-making. We'll discover how this discipline revolutionises modern workplaces as we delve deeper into cognitive ergonomics.

Cognitive Ergonomics and Human-Centred Safety®

Cognitive ergonomics is a key component when adopting a human-centred approach to safety. A human-centred approach to safety emphasises the importance of understanding human capabilities, limitations, and behaviour to design safe and effective work systems. It recognises that human factors, including cognitive processes, play a significant role in workplace safety.

Cognitive ergonomics focuses on optimising the interaction between individuals and their work environments to enhance cognitive processes such as perception, attention, memory, and decision-making. By considering cognitive ergonomics principles in safety-related tasks and work processes, organisations can design systems and procedures that align with human cognitive capabilities, reducing the likelihood of errors and accidents.

In a human-centred approach to safety, cognitive ergonomics is integrated with other aspects of human factors, such as physical ergonomics (considering the physical aspects of work tasks and their impact on the human body) and organisational ergonomics (examining the organisational factors that influence safety, such as work design, procedures, and communication).

By incorporating cognitive ergonomics into a human-centred approach to safety, organisations can create work environments that prioritise physical safety and address the mental demands placed on employees. This comprehensive approach recognises that human performance and decision-making are critical to ensuring a safe and healthy workplace.

The Need for Cognitive Ergonomics in Workplace Health and Safety:

  1. Enhancing Performance and Productivity: Cognitive ergonomics maximise employee performance and productivity. Organisations can reduce cognitive overload and minimise errors by designing work environments that align with human cognitive capabilities. When employees can efficiently process information and make decisions, they are more likely to perform tasks accurately and effectively.

  2. Reducing Mental Fatigue and Stress: Excessive mental workload can lead to mental fatigue and stress, negatively impacting employee well-being and job satisfaction. Cognitive ergonomics offers strategies to optimise workload distribution, task complexity, and information presentation. By implementing these approaches, organisations can reduce mental strain, promote mental well-being, and create a positive work environment.

  3. Improving Decision-Making: Effective decision-making is crucial in various industries, especially critical tasks and high-stakes environments. Cognitive ergonomics provides employees with the necessary tools, information, and decision-support systems to make informed choices. Organisations can enhance decision-making accuracy and efficiency by considering cognitive processes and designing decision interfaces accordingly.

  4. Enhancing Learning and Training: Cognitive ergonomics is essential for organisational learning and training programs. Organisations can optimise training methods and materials to facilitate learning by understanding how individuals acquire and retain knowledge. Incorporating cognitive ergonomics principles into training programs can improve knowledge transfer, skill development, and long-term retention, leading to more competent and confident employees.

  5. Promoting Human-Machine Interaction: As technology advances, human-machine interaction becomes increasingly prevalent in the workplace. Cognitive ergonomics is crucial in designing interfaces and interactions that are intuitive and user-friendly, ensuring effective collaboration between humans and machines. By considering cognitive factors in the design of human-machine interfaces, organisations can reduce errors, increase efficiency, and promote safety.

What are the benefits of cognitive ergonomics to individuals and organisations?

Cognitive ergonomics offers several benefits to both individuals and organisations, including, but not limited to, the following:

Benefits for Individuals:

  1. Reduced Mental Workload: Cognitive ergonomics aims to optimise the cognitive demands placed on individuals, reducing mental workload and cognitive fatigue. This leads to decreased stress levels, improved job satisfaction, and enhanced well-being.

  2. Enhanced Performance: Individuals can perform tasks more accurately and efficiently by designing work environments that align with human cognitive capabilities. Cognitive ergonomics minimise cognitive overload, allowing individuals to focus better, make informed decisions, and improve their overall performance.

  3. Improved Learning and Skill Acquisition: Cognitive ergonomics principles can be applied to training programs, making them more effective and efficient. Cognitive ergonomics facilitates better knowledge acquisition, skill development, and long-term retention by considering how individuals process information and learn.

  4. Enhanced Decision-Making: Effective decision-making is vital for individuals in various roles. Cognitive ergonomics provides decision support tools and design interfaces that promote better decision-making by considering cognitive processes. This enables individuals to make more informed choices, leading to improved outcomes.

Benefits for Organisations:

  1. Increased Productivity: Optimising the work environment based on cognitive ergonomics principles enhances employee performance and productivity. By reducing mental workload and facilitating efficient information processing, organisations can achieve higher levels of productivity and output.

  2. Enhanced Safety: Cognitive ergonomics is crucial in ensuring workplace safety. By designing systems and procedures that align with human cognitive capabilities, organisations can reduce errors, incidents, and near-misses. This leads to a safer work environment and decreases injuries and incidents.

  3. Improved Efficiency: Cognitive ergonomics aims to streamline work processes, reducing cognitive bottlenecks and inefficiencies. Organisations can enhance efficiency and minimise wasted effort by optimising information presentation, task complexity, and workload distribution.

  4. Better User Experience: Applying cognitive ergonomics principles to designing interfaces and interactions between humans and machines improves the user experience. Intuitive and user-friendly interfaces enhance usability, reduce errors, and increase user satisfaction, improving technology adoption and acceptance.

  5. Cost Savings: By considering cognitive ergonomics, organisations can prevent errors, accidents, and rework, resulting in cost savings. Additionally, cognitive ergonomics reduce absenteeism and turnover by promoting employee well-being and satisfaction, which can also benefit the organisation financially.

How can applying cognitive ergonomics help organisations meet their obligation to manage psychosocial risks in the workplace?

Applying cognitive ergonomics in the workplace can contribute significantly to managing and reducing psychosocial risks and promote a physically and psychologically safer and healthier work environment for all. Here are just a few examples of how;

  1. Work Design: Cognitive ergonomics can influence the design of work processes and systems to ensure they align with human cognitive abilities and limitations. For instance, by simplifying complex tasks or providing effective tools and aids for memory, organisations can reduce cognitive load and potential stress or confusion.

  2. Training and Development: Organisations can use principles of cognitive ergonomics to develop effective training programs. These programs enhance cognitive skills like decision-making, problem-solving, and situational awareness.

  3. Technology Interaction: The use of technology is increasing in the workplace. Cognitive ergonomics can help design interfaces and interaction processes that are more user-friendly, thereby reducing frustration and enhancing productivity.

  4. Managing Workload: By understanding and respecting cognitive limitations, organisations can better manage workload to prevent burnout and stress. This includes adequate breaks and variation in tasks to prevent mental fatigue.

  5. Enhancing Well-being: A workspace designed with cognitive ergonomics in mind can enhance well-being by reducing frustration and stress. Improved cognitive ergonomics can lead to better control, a clearer understanding of tasks, and greater job satisfaction.

  6. Preventing Errors: By designing tasks and systems that consider human cognitive capacities and limitations, cognitive ergonomics can help avoid mistakes that could lead to accidents or near misses. This leads to a safer work environment.

  7. Promoting Mental Health: By considering cognitive ergonomics in the design and management of work, organisations can better support workers' mental health. This includes considering factors like workload, control, work schedule, social support, role clarity, and meaningfulness of the work.

Final Thoughts

The significance of cognitive ergonomics in workplace health and safety cannot be overstated. By refining the interaction between individuals and their work environments, we can significantly enhance the workplace experience.

Human cognitive capabilities allow organisations to design work environments that boost performance, mitigate mental fatigue and stress, streamline decision-making processes, and foster effective learning. In addition, it promotes productive human-machine interaction, which is crucial in an increasingly digital world.

By prioritising cognitive ergonomics, employers enhance their personnel's physical and psychological health, safety, and well-being and foster increased employee engagement and satisfaction. Moreover, this approach directly contributes to the enhancement of workplace productivity.

Interested in learning more about our Human-Centred Safety® programs? Contact our team at or visit our website at for more information.

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