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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Texas A&M: Coupling Psychology to Process Design to Improve Safety

“What engineer thought this would be a good idea?”

That is a question Dr. S. Camille Peres, hears often from industrial workers and laboratory researchers when she interviews them about the intricacies of the chemical processes they must control.

Dr. Peres, of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Texas A&M School of Public Health, discussed her research, which marries psychology and process design to dig deep into industrial and laboratory safety, in ACS (American Chemical Society) Chemical Health & Safety.

The foundation of Dr. Peres’ research is based on cognitive psychology that examines how humans process information. Her research and teaching interests focus specifically on improving human-machine interfaces, especially in high-risk industrial settings.

Dr. Peres, who is a research leader at the Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center at Texas A&M, has found that one-size-fits-all communication does not work well as a tool to aid people in their work. People are more complicated than that.

The interface between the human mind and a multistep process — even one that seems straightforward — can be rife with complexity, particularly if the task is unfamiliar and the instruction manual contains too little detail, is too complex, or simply does not exist, Dr. Peres noted.

The kind of frustrations her research subjects experience can be similar to ones we experience in daily life when trying to fix a child’s bike or replace a vehicle’s turn signal.

Some of Dr. Peres’ other work has uncovered some disturbing facts about safety. In one case, her team examined how people respond to the familiar hazard warnings on lab equipment and certain chemicals — the common yellow- or orange-colored labels with a black exclamation point. The researchers found that the alerts are often ignored. Now, they are trying to find out why.

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