NIOSH to Study Cognitive Loads on Underground Coal Miners

The agency's notice indicates it plans a three-phased study to examine the impact from new safety devices they carry, including wireless communication systems, personal dust monitors, and proximity detectors.

NIOSH has published a notice outlining an interesting study it plans to undertake to understand the cognitive demands placed on underground coal miners by new safety devices they must carry, with the industry increasingly deploying wireless communication systems, personal dust monitors, and proximity detectors. The notice describes a study in three-phases: direct observation of 10-20 miners as they work and another 10-20 miners taking part in a task/cognitive task analysis; a questionnaire administered to 150 miners at most; and then experiments involving miners at a NIOSH research facility in Bruceton, Pa.

The experiments will explore human systems integration, or HSI, which NIOSH describes here as incorporating "the needs of any human interaction within the system into the design process to optimize both safety and efficiency of the system." Its use in the acquisition cycle is common in industries such as defense and aerospace, but the mining industry "currently lacks a similar set of guidelines to ensure both usability by the miner and increased safety of the working environment," the notice states.

The new safety devices are being introduced as a result of the MINER Act of 2006 and similar initiatives. "These devices offer attractive health and safety benefits -- improved tracking and communication, real time monitoring of respirable dust levels, and the prevention of accidental crushing by large mobile machinery. However, while the benefits of such wearable devices are easy to understand within their own context, they inevitably increase both the physical and cognitive burden placed on the mine worker who must carry, interact with, and ultimately make decisions with each one of the devices. The physical burden is evident, but the cognitive effect may not be as clear," according to the notice. "Currently, it is unknown how the increased physical and cognitive load that is being placed on today's mine workers will affect their health and safety. A first step to determining this impact is to understand a miner's job from the perspective of the miner. This research project will use an HSI approach to answer a series of questions because HSI is based on the understanding that people are the critical elements within systems and adopting a human-centric perspective of systems increases productivity and safety, while decreasing costs (Tvaryanas, 2006). The goal of this project is to determine: (1) What information is critical for a miner to safely perform his job, (2) what processes (e.g., expertise, decision making, attention, etc.) are necessary for a miner to effectively perform his job, and (3) how do the miner and the machine interact."

When the third phase has been completed, the data obtained by NIOSH will be used to draft mine-specific HIS guidelines.

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