KANBrief 3/13

Recognizing and appreciating diversity in the world of work

The topical concept of diversity has now also reached the world of work. Diversity recognizes differences between individual members of the workforce as an asset, and embodies a number of very different aspects: gender, age, culture and nationality, performance, corporate culture, and more. What attitude do companies take to this diversity? What influence do these aspects have upon safety and health at work? And how can standards address this subject with consideration for OSH?

The current trend in large companies is for diversity management to be institutionalized. Frequently however, gender issues are the primary issue here, and therefore aspects such as the organization of work, working hours, and the compatibility of family and vocational life; the safety of work equipment is less of an issue. It is also now common in German companies for teams to be made up of several nationalities. Cultural differences may translate into different attitudes to safety, and thus result in work equipment being used differently. In standards that formulate safety requirements, or in ergonomics standards dealing with the use of this equipment, it has long been normal for consideration to be given to both sexes. But to what extent are other aspects of diversity considered? What relevance do they have for the safe design of work equipment, and therefore for standardization?

Diversity and standardization would appear at first glance to be a contradiction in terms. Manufacturers of work equipment are however interested in as many people as possible being able to use their products. This is perfectly compatible with diversity. Ergonomic standards that describe the characteristics of users, such as anthropometric data, cover this diversity by stating percentiles. For many human characteristics however, the differences from one individual to the next are so great that percentiles cannot be determined in any useful form.

The subject matter that can be addressed by a standard that is geared to diversity may have to be rethought. Two essential principles can be identified that to some degree have already been implemented in standardization:

1) Where possible, a product should be de signed such that the potential future  group  is as large and therefore as diverse as possible .

This is the basis of universal design, or design for all. DIN Technical Reports 124, Products in Design for All, and 131, Guidelines for standards developers to address the needs of older persons and persons with disabilities, describe this aspect in closer detail.

An example is the multi-channel principle: should one sensory organ be fully inactive owing to a disability, a signal should simultaneously address and be registered by another sense. A product standard could therefore describe multiple means by which perception functions could be implemented. People with a disability affecting one sensory organ could then be included in the user group de spite this impairment.

2) Conversely, the second principle constrains: in the areas with an impact upon safety during use, the potential user group must be clearly restricted.

For the use for example of certain machines, such as an overhead crane or fork-lift truck, relevant skills are required which in turn require corresponding training. This training can be provided for persons of a different age or cultural background, or in different languages. This principle shows that for safety reasons, barriers must be consciously erected at certain points.

The designer determines the future user group of the product in any case in the course of the risk analysis. Parts 1 and 2 of the ISO 20282 series of standards, Ease of operation of every day products, support the subsequent process, namely determining of the usability for the user – with respect however to products for everyday use. Transferring the content of these standards  to the use of work equipment could further the philosophy of diversity in the world of work.

Dr. Hanna Zieschang