FPE asks H. Harvey Cohen, Ph.D., CPE (founding senior consultant at Error Analysis, Inc.) why he became an ergonomist?
I believe it is safe to say that in past generations, such as mine, few, if any of us started out to become ergonomists! However, this is changing as both the field (and I for that matter) enters our seventh decade.
Also changing is the way we impart our message not only to our potential clients, the purchasers of ergonomics expertise, but to future generations of young persons who might choose ergonomics as a profession. That is what has drawn me over the years toward interest in developing mentoring initiatives for both students and young professionals and why I find this activity particularly invigorating in my work with the FPE.
Like many of our field’s predecessors, I received undergraduate degrees with emphases in both neurophysiology and applied experimental psychology. My original aim was to explore the biological bases of behavior, but I knew early that I didn’t want to spend my life in the confines of a laboratory. Gradually, I became intrigued with the notion of pursuing a field in which I could combine my interests in applied field research with real-world consulting.
When Dick Pearson at North Carolina State University offered me a fully paid stipend under a graduate school fellowship program with NASA, I jumped at the opportunity. This was in the late 1960’s, during the heyday of aerospace, when we were soon to land a man on the moon and, as a graduate student, I had the resources of the very best research facilities in the world at my disposal. It didn’t take a lot of thought to say, “sure, I’ll become an ergonomist (aka human factors engineer)”!
Decades passed and many opportunities evolved along with them. I spent seven amazing years at the newly established, under act of Congress, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). This led to independent consulting opportunities within a vast array of industries and to forming my own research and consulting firms specializing in injury analysis and prevention leading ultimately to a rewarding career in ergonomics consulting and forensics, professional applications I was in a position to help pioneer.
Along the way I met many of the very best role models in our field – some no longer with us and too many to name, but they were all totally unselfish with their time to pass on some of their keen knowledge, insights and wisdom to me… the kid. Soon, or so it seems, I wasn’t “the kid” anymore. And so, I have made it my passion to attempt to do the same and, in some small way, help institutionalize the process of mentoring.
Neither my writing over 150 peer-reviewed scientific publications, 5 books, and too many book chapters to count nor having personally investigated and likely prevented thousands of injury incidents compares to the experiences I have had with young HFE professionals over the years. Building relationships with the dozens of students and young professionals has made me most proud. Most of these individuals I have had the privilege of knowing and mentoring are practicing ergonomists today, including my own son Joe.
This is the finest legacy I could possibly leave the field of ergonomics that has so enriched my life. Prophetically, I opened a fortune cookie at a Chinese restaurant the day before writing this piece that read: “A mentor is someone whose hindsight can become your foresight.”
H. Harvey Cohen, Ph.D., CPE is the founding senior consultant at Error Analysis, Inc. He can be reached through www.erroranalysis.com.