Battle of the Ergonomists

2012-10-16

Whether it’s where we work, where we play or where we rest, how we connect with, and relate to, our environment impacts us in many ways. The “interactions among humans and other elements of a system,” as the International Ergonomics Association defines “ergonomics,” takes on new and important progress daily.

Whether it’s where we work, where we play or where we rest, how we connect with, and relate to, our environment impacts us in many ways. The “interactions among humans and other elements of a system,” as the International Ergonomics Association defines “ergonomics,” takes on new and important progress daily.

But ergonomics is far from a new concept. In fact, research tells us that long before scientists, health professionals and office equipment manufacturers began examining and improving issues on worker health and productivity, Ancient Greeks used ergonomic principles. In fact, the word ergonomics is derived from the Greek words ergon (work) and nomos (laws).  So it was Greece that gets credit for being the first to champion ergonomics, right? Well, not so fast, cry scholars of ancient Egypt, who say there is evidence that ancient Egyptians used ergonomic principles.
Historical controversy? Well perhaps. But with current discussion on how, and why, to design ergonomic-friendly office and living space, we wanted to further this dialogue. So we fast forwarded the discussion a few millennia and challenged several ergonomists to a friendly Q-n-A on current ergonomic issues.
Our “panelists” include:
•Tom Stewart, Executive Chairman, System Concepts, London, England
•Lotta Falenius, Physiotherapist/Ergonomist, Arbetsform, Sweden
•Robert W. Stuthridge, Ph.D. Integrated Ergonomics, USA

 Let start our discussion with a general look at the ergonomics field:
1. What is included in the field of ergonomics?
Stewart: Potentially everything. Ergonomics is about the relationship between people and their environment and everything in it. Although ergonomics started in the military and industrial spheres, it is now recognized as important in commerce, medicine, retail, transport, communications, leisure and sport.

Falenius: Ergonomics is about adapting the work environment to your body—whatever you work with. Variation, movements and good posture are very big parts of preventing problems in your muscles, joints, etc. When we talk of office ergonomics, it helps if you have a good adjustable ergonomic chair and a desk
that you can raise or lower.

Stuthridge: Broadly, ergonomics concerns itself with all purposeful activity performed by people. The ergonomist applies knowledge of anatomy, physiology, engineering, epidemiology, anthropometry, biomechanics and psychology in order to understand human capacity and capability for work, so that tasks might be designed that do not exceed these capacities and capabilities.

2. What lifestyle-activity segment (for example: work, home, recreation, school, transportation) is most overlooked when we examine ways to improve ergonomics?
Stewart: One area which can be overlooked is that the distinction between work and leisure is blurring. We work longer hours, often at home and we expect our workplaces to be more relaxed places which may be attractive but may be less suited for work.

Falenius: One area where ergonomics is overlooked is at school. Students do not always sit in comfortable positions, which causes problems with the neck and back. Since they are young, these problems are usually overlooked but can appear later in life if not treated properly.

Stuthridge: Ergonomics tends to concentrate where funding and political will are available to support it. For this reason, priorities for ergonomics vary from time to time and from one nation to another. The influence of ergonomics will be found in every lifestyle area. None are overlooked entirely, but some areas—work and transportation, for example—do employ more ergonomists than others.

3. There are many promoted benefits that ergonomics brings to the business community (economic, quality of life, employee productivity and reduced medical costs): which benefits are most accepted by the business community and which ones are typically ignored?

Stewart: Sadly, improving the quality of employee’s working lives is not usually high up the corporate agenda. However, since many countries have health and safety legislation, the role of ergonomic programs in keeping employees and customers safe and employers out of court does appeal to business.

Falenius: Usually economics decide, which means that it is easy to overlook the long-term effects of ergonomics. If employees are well looked after, the productivity increases and the costs of rehabilitation are reduced. Unfortunately, short-term thinking is more common, and the company often finds that the costs for new ergonomic equipment or the help of an ergonomist is too high.

Stuthridge: What an employer says they value may or may not reflect their embracing of ergonomics; most employers are fundamentally interested in maximizing productivity, and maintaining the highest possible level of profit or the lowest possible overhead cost. Some businesses may genuinely care for the wellbeing of their employees, but typically that does not take precedence over productivity and economic wellbeing of the organization.

4. What will be the most important trend emerging in the field of ergonomics?
Stewart: I suspect it’s looking at the total experience people have with products which goes beyond actual use. It’s important that users can perform tasks effectively, efficiently and with some satisfaction. Increasingly, good usability is not enough and technology suppliers are looking to optimize the whole user experience. As ergonomists, we are extending our techniques to address the total user experience.

Falenius: Probably to reduce the time passed sitting at a desk and using a mouse. If employees could talk to their computer and move around more freely, it would reduce the stress on the body. Static stress is one of the more serious causes for repetitive strain injuries.

Stuthridge: There are no trends in ergonomics, although ergonomics is applied to trends of activity in society. It may be that the aging worker will continue to grow in importance for ergonomists. If there are adverse social trends at work, then ergonomics activity will tend to follow that trend. If people are not consuming so much technology, expect the decline of ergonomics activity in those areas also.

5. You're marooned on a desert island: what “product” would you take with you to promote your quality of life from an ergonomic viewpoint.
Stewart: Assuming I had a solar power charger as well, it would have to be an iPad . I guess I’d not have wifi or a 3G signal, but there are plenty of apps to keep me amused (there’s probably a desert island app) and browsing my music and photos would help pass many happy hours whilst waiting to be rescued.

Falenius: As I find myself on an island I am free to move around, to run, to walk and to use my body for exercises in the sand. Another very important word in ergonomics is recovery, so a desert island must be the ultimate place for recreation. I would probably choose a bowl of fruit and nuts, giving me nourishment and a sense of well-being. The goal of ergonomics is to “feel good” and this will be enough for a long time, on condition that I will not be marooned too long!

Stuthridge: I would just take a good utility knife. With this the basic needs of food and shelter might be met. Being removed from the cares of society would provide immediate enhancement of quality of life. No mortgage, no credit cards, no inane advertising or the constant drip of mindless entertainment. Time to reflect on life. In this frenetic day and age, that is perhaps the greatest luxury.

Our panelists found a lot to agree on, such as the importance of ergonomic design in both the workplace and home, and how economics often drives the decision-making process.

Think about the few minutes you just spent reading this article. Where you sitting or standing? What type of lighting did you use? Were you at your desk or sitting at your kitchen table? How much background noise were you exposed to? Was there proper air flow and ventilation? Wow, that’s a lot of questions to consider for just thinking about the brief time it took you to read this!
Now think about an eight-hour day in the office, or a weekend at home. What environmental conditions are you working under for long periods of time? Perhaps you’d rather not think about all these issues. But that’s exactly what ergonomists do, and the companies that employee ergonomists to think about these issues are ahead of the game when it comes to providing employees with optimum working environments.

And we should all want to work and play in optimum environments. Whether that environment is in an office, at home, or on a desert island!