Book title: Person-Centred Ergonomics: A Brantonian View of Human Factors

Taylor and Francis, 1993, ISBN 0-74840-005106

Andrew Dillon

This item is not the definitive copy. Please use the following citation when referencing this material: Dillon, A. (1994) Review of Oborne et al, Person-Centered Ergonomics: A Brantonian View of Human Factors, Ergonomics, 37, 1439-1440.

This book is a tribute to the work and ideas of Paul Branton who died in 1990 after a diverse career that took in spells in the Furniture Industry Research Association, the MRC Industrial Psychology Research Unit and British Rail amongst other places. His particular research interests covered skilled behaviour, comfort, decision-making, stress and, as his writings suggest, a host of other subjects related to human work activities.

The book is consists of four, unequally sized parts. Part 1, entitled the Brantonian View, consists of 5 chapters produced (it appears) by the editors. In 50 pages it covers the basic ideas behind so-called ‘person-centred ergonomics’, human values, unselfconscious behaviour, and measuring behaviour. Part 2 is a collection of 3 short but informative chapters examining Paul Branton’s contribution to the field by people who worked with or knew him. Part 3, the bulk of the book, contains 12 of Branton’s papers, including two previously unpublished papers, collected together. Part 4 is a short annotated bibliography of all his writings.

The major thrust of the book, from the editors’ perspective at least, is the persistent argument that Paul Branton offered something unique, a special view of ergonomics as a discipline and of the human as its subject matter, that placed his work apart from the rest. As the title suggests, the editors identify in Branton a view they term ‘person-centred’ and contrast this with ‘traditional’ ergonomics. The latter is said to characterise human operators as equal partners with machines in a single loop system involving the exchange and processing of information. Ergonomics thus construed, seeks to maximise safety and comfort while minimising the occurrence of errors in the system. The ‘person-centred’ approach is said to represent a departure from this through a recognition of the operator as the most important component in the system, acting purposively and reasonably.

Such a recognition of the user implies more than fanciful emphasis on, or lip service to human values but a serious attempt to move from narrow information processing type models of man (or woman) to more holistic, almost existential models. The human operator therefore is never considered just in terms of cognitive structures, anthropometrics or perceptual abilities as is typical of traditional ergonomics. Instead, a shift to a person-centred perspective brings with it an emphasis on the operators’ values, their models of their worlds, their personal histories, and from this, the purposive nature of people’s thoughts and actions. I remain underwhelmed by much of this since I feel it seeks to categorise positions which really ought be seen as occupying points on a continuum, differing in emphasis more than in subject matter. Perhaps it is a device of the editors, intended to stir readers into mental debate with the book but I don’t recognise too many of my professional colleagues in the ‘traditional’ camp described here.

According to the editors, Branton’s contributions rested heavily on his dual work in psychophysiology and in philosophy. From the former, mention is frequently made of conscious and unconscious rhythmical variations in bodily function which act as major influences on behaviour, not least in terms of the human’s efforts at compensating for fluctuations. Branton argued that the ergonomist must seek to influence the design of working environments to support and facilitate such compensating behaviour. Examples are provided in the context of train drivers rising levels of boredom  (viewed here in terms if stimulus inhibition and physiological adaptation) and seating comfort (viewed in terms of shifting postural stability).

From the latter, it is argued that Branton was a philosopher who understood himself as an heir to the psychologically oriented tradition in critical philosophy. This implies the search for meaning and purpose, the moral obligation, if you like, of humans as workers, and by extension, ergonomists as professionals. Crucial to Branton’s work is the idea of “self” and “drives”, not in the psychoanalytic or deterministic form, but as a metaphysical perspective on the nature of human operators, who are thus deemed always reasonable and purposive. Ergonomics in he Brantonian or person-centred sense therefore must consider the user as much in terms of values as in terms of information processing capability.

It is difficult to do justice to the book in a limited review but after living with it for a couple of months I  find myself referring to its arguments more and more, and contemplating its message in more reflective moments. As a result, I remain curious as to its perceived value and impact on the field. Supposedly “new ” ideas come and go in ergonomics faster than many other disciplines and it tempting to see “person-centredness” (with all the cushion-throwing and “how-do-you-really feel?” associations that the term  engenders) as just the latest buzzword for a discipline constantly insecure of its status as a science or profession. Certainly, the opening sections by the editors smack too much of flag-waving for my tastes and had me convinced that I was going to be in for  another disappointing read where some author would repeatedly urge me to know the user in all her glory. However, this would not do justice to the present work. Branton’s own writings are, in parts, a joy to read, replete with anecdote and example of important issues in ergonomic practice, told by a master in a delightfully engaging fashion.

It is so rare that work of this nature and style  is published, and one can honestly open the Branton papers virtually anywhere and read something on that page which will inform, challenge, or entertain. Where else is one going to find lucid argument about the ethical status of the user in working environments going hand in hand with an analysis of train passengers squirming in their seats?  Which other authors in this field are prepared to use  the terms “ergonomics” and “metaphysical principles” in the same sentence? Who else will demonstrate knowledge based on years of detailed experimental investigations and admit to finding the analysis of posture and seating comfort best treated by watching video-recordings in fast-forward mode? Branton does and what’s more, he convinces you that his is a reasonable way to look at the world.

So what have we here? An intriguing work for sure, but a foretaste of the impending revolution? I leave that to each reader to decide, which is as it should be. I was struck reading this book that Branton believed in ergonomics as a vocation, a calling, an almost sacred activity; and the book is wonderful antidote to both the navel-gazing, despondency of the “ergonomics really hasn’t made a difference”– brigade and the arrogant “only ergonomists understand human operators”­– purists. If the cap fits, wear it,  but to feel the wind in your hair occasionally, I recommend this book.