Communication is a vital safety tool

Thursday, 01 April, 2010

Communication has always been considered a vital tool in emergency and first-response situations to ensure the safety of operatives and to enable them to carry out their important functions. The same is true in industrial safety because the common thread between first-response and industrial safety situations is that they are all mission critical.

Mission-critical situations, regardless of industry, mean there is little margin for error; and without vital information flowing between operatives, the potential for errors increases dramatically. That’s why the design of communications equipment for use in industrial applications must have safety as first priority. It must be designed with the end user foremost in mind.

Our Design Integration unit* has the objective of ‘technology that’s second nature’. That involves teaming our designers with end users at very early stages of product development to learn from them and their working environment to make our equipment intuitive for them to use. We send industrial designers and psychologists together to collaborate with end users, forming comprehensive design teams that look at technical, operational, safety and broad ‘human’ issues.

We found that psychologists ask questions differently to designers to obtain a deeper understanding of user requirements. When addressing safety, especially in mission-critical domains, our psychologists use a new study of human behaviour - ‘high-velocity human factors’ - to better understand human performance during peak and critical moments. The findings are then used to form fresh, new design foundations for human-machine interfaces for our technologies.

We’ve sent designers to fire-training schools, where they’ve been exposed to ‘situational disabilities’ like limited visibility, mobility and communications. We recently sent a design team to a Malaysian steel mill, where they were completely suited up like production-floor workers. The greeting they received from the locals was “Welcome to hell”.

Mistakes in these environments can cost lives, so we’re very conscious of the mission-critical nature of communications for such industries.

These experiences enable our designers to better understand the actual behaviour of end users in critical situations, where safety is paramount. Important functional design considerations for communications devices include grip, centre of gravity, controllability and fit. We also learned that colour is an important issue that differentiates application. For example, ‘public safety’ users want their communications devices to be ‘invisible’, but industrial users want high visibility, because they’re often working in low-light conditions or they may drop or lose their radios.

Our design team also includes a qualified anthropologist to give us deeper insight into human behaviour in various situations and to help translate these behaviours into coherent ideas for products. It’s all about how people deal with the situations they encounter.

The success of communications devices in harsh industrial environments, like mining and petrochemical facilities, is often more than just technical attributes. It’s sometimes what’s left out of the product that makes it intuitive to use in their environments. That often involves making what’s complex simple. For example, some of our ‘public safety’ handheld radios are designed to be ‘glovable’ with large knobs and battery releases that fit like gun clips, so operatives who commonly wear heavy gloves can use them easily. We’re considering introducing these features into radios for industrial applications because many workers wear similar gloves.

Not surprisingly, digital radio is increasingly being deployed in mines, driven down from public-safety markets, where they’ve been successfully used for years. Because of the critical importance of safety in mines, many mining companies are seeing the advantages of cleaner communications provided by digital radio over conventional analog systems. Teamed up with devices that are ergonomically designed for intuitive operation, especially in emergency situations, these industrial workplaces become far safer.

* Bruce Claxton is Senior Director of Design Integration for Motorola Enterprise Mobility Solutions. His design team leverages social science, art and design to drive new directions for Motorola products, addressing everything from product engineering and design issues to future business strategies. Claxton holds masters and bachelor degrees in industrial design and has 30+ years of industrial design experience. He is a Fellow of the Industrial Designers Society of America and holds over 50 patents.

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