Michael Patkin's

The China Connection

Publication history, Reflections & comments



Surgery & ergonomics


Information design

Editorials, book reviews



Only 30 Chinese delegates and 70 visitors attended the 2nd Pan-Pacific Conference on Occupational Ergonomics at Wuhan in China, on 2 November 1992. 1 What then made this occasion so important, given the junior standing of some of them? The main answer was the clear directions that emerged for the future of ergonomics, especiallyin Asia — improve professional standards and education, make it more active, and make it more relevant — with the sales message that "good ergonomics is good business".

Next century, China will be the world's fourth largest economy, after the United States , Japan , and Germany . For Australia , even more than other countries, the 2nd Pan-Pacific was an important opportunity for understanding the mechanics of this region better and to strengthen existing links to it. It was also an opportunity to strengthen old friendships and form new ones. This conference also ensured the success of similar meetings in the future. Australians should now begin to prepare for the 3rd Pan-Pacific Conference, which will be held in Seoul in 1994.

Visitors had the chance not only to experience China as others do, but to see the huge Wuhan steelworks, and SEPRI (Safety and Environmental Protection Research Institute), the local host organisation for the conference, a huge organisation of its kind with 850 scientists and technicians. It was also a time, behind the scenes, for interesting negotiations — arrangements were made for the first doctoral student in ergonomics from one developing country to study in a new department abroad, flavoured in this case with important political undertones of the new world order. Joint national ventures at government level were signed for teaching and consulting in ergonomics for developing countries and probably a lot more.

As usual at the best of conferences, you could gather a huge amount of informal information about current overseas developments and techniques, and their limitations. It gave surprising new insights into the credibility, or lack of it, of some vocal researchers in RSI back home in Australia .

Star guests, star presentations

Leading the plenary speakers was President of the International Ergonomics Association, Hal Hendrick. Ten years ago he introduced the concept and name of macro-ergonomics, thus setting an added agenda for 15,000 members of societies in 27 countries affiliated to the IEA. Some disagree with this approach, asserting that macro-ergonomics is only industrial psychology in new clothes. Were this true, it is still important in its new stronger relation to traditional micro-ergonomics. Sceptics — and ergonomists generally — should read Tom Peters' new book, Liberation Management.2

On this occasion Hendrick will be taking back to the IEA council meetings the important new perspectives on ergonomics in China , and Asia generally. One of his souvenirs is a formal photograph of leading delegates at the conference greeted by the Governor of Hubei Province of which Wuhan , with its six million people, is the capital. Hubei , with 54 million people, sees itself historically as the centre of the "Middle Kingdom ", the ancient self-image of China . It is a slower giant to waken than the new economic zones of the south coast of China , but its sheer size and mass of resources make it significant for future developments in heavy industry and in industrial safety. SEPRI, based in Wuhan , is an arm of the Ministry for Metallurgical Industry. It is responsible for occupational health and safety among three million workers in steelworks and coalmines, and is described in previous reports in this journal 3, 4.

The second plenary speaker was Rong Feng Shen, Professor and Director of the Institute for Ergonomics of Tongji University in Shanghai , and president of the two-year-old Chinese Ergonomics Society. He spoke on model development and quantification in ergonomics, with a view to optimisation and decision making, giving different weights to different factors. Such approaches will add an interesting new aspect to ergonomics internationally.

Houshang Shahnavaz, of Lulea University , is already well known for his work on technology transfer and ergonomics in developing countries. He analysed the problems and requirements for successful implementation with ergonomics in detail. Shahnavaz and his colleagues have done important work through ILO, also teaching others to adapt Western models to local culture, for example safety hats in steelworks made of bamboo rather than fibreglass. Manuaba of Indonesia wasn't there, but he would have added many supporting examples.

Next among keynote speakers was Professor Kumoshira, from the University of Occupational Health in Kitakyushu , founder and organiser of the first conference two years ago. Interestingly he, like Rong Feng, described yet another analytical approach to ergonomics.

Choon-Nam Ong of Singapore discussed shiftwork, health, and social factors in developing countries, describing his studies in Singapore as the model. Thanks to his mastery of the two languages, he was better able than anyone to bridge the formidable communication gap between locals and visitors. More important, because of his expertise and his personal attributes, he has emerged in the last few years as a leader in ergonomics both in the Asia-Pacific region and internationally. Choon-Nam already has many friends in Australia who look forward to closer contacts with him in the future.

The strongest single plenary paper was, in my opinion, that of Jim Whiting, Director of the Queensland branch of the National Safety Council. He spoke on changing safety behaviour rather than safety attitudes in organisations, a further development of his paper at Futuresafe '92 in Adelaide earler this year. It is important reading for any practising ergonomist today, especially in Australia .

Our host, Xiao Amin, Director of the Safety and Environmental Protection Research Institute, described the rapid development of ergonomics in Asia . He, too, spoke of the need for culturally appropriate ergonomics, for example more work on agriculture, accident prevention, and applications than on pure research, and more support from the West for education and training along lines like those developed by Shahnavaz.

Other papers

Altogether there were 74 papers, presented in two streams over three days. These ranged from the very good to a few not so. My paper discussed barriers to ergonomics due to its failures — publicity for gimmicky devices and solutions, and ergonomists stepping outside their professional role and attempting to be physicians or management consultants. This theme was expanded by Hendrick who discussed the need for more attention to education and professional accreditation.

Organised in 10 sections, there were many useful papers on a wide range of subjects — systems design and analysis; new statistical tools (including a world first in English, on "Gray Models" for analysing soft data); accumulated case reports and experience from many areas (especially Asian countries) and their lessons; seating at work; repetitive work; shiftwork and its problems and solutions; and absenteeism (which in Singapore can be directly related to inadequate public transport and crowded road traffic). Most ergonomists will find several useful papers to suit their individual interests.

The international flavour extended from the lecture room to meal tables, coffee breaks, informal time, buses, airports, and the excellent social functions. There were strong representations from Australia , Europe , Israel , both developed and developing Asian countries, and a small group from the United States .

Lessons for the future

Those visiting China for the first time found the basis for deep and long-lasting friendship. The strongest impressions that remain are the great humanity and exquisitely warm friendship of our hosts from SEPRI, and the warmth and goodwill this imbued.

For Australia the message is clear. The China connection is one part of the world connection, and one of the most important for our long-term national future. More generally, there is a tremendous opportunity to increase our international links, to make unique Australian contributions based on our national robust common sense (if we exclude our grandstanding politicians), and share our efforts with others. We should be developing graduate and postgraduate training positions for overseas students, and "internships", perhaps with commercial consulting firms (such as those of David Caple, Mark Dohrmann, and others) and organisations such as the National Safety Council, Worksafe, and State industrial organisations.

The 3rd Pan-Pacific Conference on Occupational Ergonomics in Seoul will be important for Australians. Synergy is cooperation where the output is more than the sum of the inputs. The synergy from increased Australian participation in the Asian region could be enormous. Welcome to 1993 and its challenges and opportunities!


1. Ergonomics in Occupational Safety and Health. Proceedings of the 2nd Pan-Pacific Conference on Occupational Ergonomics, Wuhan , China , 1992.

2. Peters, T. Liberation Management. Necessary Disorganization for the Nanosecond Nineties. London : Macmillan, 1992.

3. Patkin, M. Hands across the China Sea — visit by four Wuhan safety engineers. J Occup Health Safety — Aust NZ 1988, 4(1): 42-44.

4. Patkin, M. Ergonomics team visits China . J Occup Health Safety — Aust NZ 1987, 3(1): 61-63.


The China Connection

J Occup Health Safety —Aust NZ 1992, 8(6): 546-548


Dr Michael Patkin, a past president of the Ergonomics Society of Australia, is a general surgeon in private practice in Whyalla , South Australia .