What is your current position and area of research?
For the last 24 years I have been the director of the Ergonomics Graduate Training Program at UC Berkeley, Professor of Bioengineering at UC Berkeley, and Professor of Medicine (Occupational Medicine) at UC San Francisco. It’s time to do something different. Our research focuses on understanding underlying mechanisms of how workers develop musculoskeletal disorders, like carpal tunnel syndrome. We evaluate engineering interventions that are designed to prevent these disorders and prevent the related disability. Our applied research has focused on computer work, keyboard and mice design, gesture input for human computer interaction, tablet design, and agricultural and biotechnology work. Lately, we have been developing interventions for construction; specifically, interventions that reduce the fatigue and injury risk associated with using large (30 lb) hammer drills for concrete work. Our lab is multidisciplinary with graduate students from public health, engineering, and occupational medicine.
What led you to this field/area of research?
As an undergraduate at UC San Diego, I studied bioengineering but was drawn to the potential impact of practicing medicine. In medical school it became clear that preventing diseases has a much greater impact on population health than acute care medicine so I did residencies in preventive medicine specialties: internal medicine and occupational and environmental medicine. Work-related injuries and illness cost our society about $150b per year and the most common injuries are musculoskeletal. My research group applies engineering methods, e.g., ergonomics and human factors, to the prevention of work-related musculoskeletal injuries. It is incredibly rewarding to hear directly from workers when they tell us that our engineering interventions are preventing injuries and allow them to go home at the end of work without the extreme exhaustion that they used to experience.
What has been the biggest change in Human system integration during your career?
All companies involve people working in complex systems. Successful managers understand how to motivate employees and manage the conflicts between systems to improving production, quality, and worker health. It has been exciting to see the recent emergence of a science that focuses on human-systems integration. As an example, in my field of Occupational Medicine, some companies are beginning to adopt an approach of Total Worker Health (NIOSH) that combines workplace safety with personal health at the workplace. These two previously separate and relatively unimportant systems are merged to improve employee morale, health, presenteeism, and reduce health care and workers’ compensation costs. The metrics for these systems are now followed more closely in the C-suite.
What do you enjoy most about being a member of BOHSI?
Hanging out with smart people and addressing problems that are important to our country. The staff and members of BOHSI are hard working, articulate and have a good sense of humor. I look forward to our meetings.
What is the most important thing you would like to see human-systems integration achieve in the next 10 years?
It would be good to see our science mature to better understand the roles and behaviors of humans in complex systems. We need models that can better predict behaviors of people and the consequences of systems and are validated with empiric studies.
What is your favorite book of all time?
I read Walden by David Henry Thoreau when I was 21. Thoreau celebrates nature, science, independent thought, the role of citizens in a society, good writing, and construction. I’m still a romantic at heart and love sailing and the wilderness of the sea. But next year I will follow Thoreau’s lead and build a house in the woods.