A decade of ergonomic innovation

Ask pretty much anyone about ergonomics and most will have some idea about what it is. This was far from the case 10 years ago.

Once confined to the realms of research and academia, the media has now extended the discussion of ergonomics to the general public. Employees understand, to an increasingly sophisticated degree, the impact of repetitive tasks and poor workplace and task design.

And over the last decade increased interest from employees and employers alike has spawned an industry onto itself with professional ergonomic specialists and consequently a host of innovations to produce healthier, happier more productive workers.

Many companies have even moved beyond the standard joint health and safety committees to develop separate ergonomics teams comprised of trained employee and management members.

With increased ergonomic awareness comes more demand on product designers to respond to the needs of the market. Both workplaces and the general public are demanding products that are safer and easier to use.

Here’s a quick look at how those demands have brought changes to workplaces in the past 10 years and what they may bring in the near future.

Industrial tools
Tool design has improved considerably in the last decade. Manufacturers are making tools that are lighter, easier to control, equipped with better grips, require less force to operate, and produce less vibration.

The tool industry has also become very specialized, finding tools that apply to specific manufacturing needs. And, if they do not have a specific tool, many innovative tool companies will custom build it.

Industrial engineering improvements
In addition to industrial tools, the general manufacturing environment has also improved over the last decade.

One significant step forward has been the acceptance across many industries that one size does not fit all. Workers of both genders come in all shapes and sizes and have different physical capabilities and workplace design must account for this. As a result, there has been a dramatic increase in the presence of adjustability features, ranging from adjustable worktables and chairs to platforms to accommodate workers of different heights on the same assembly line.

Another dramatic shift has been the realization that humans are not well suited to certain types of manual work. As a result, there has been a proliferation of material-handling equipment, ranging from roller systems to hoists to carts, designed to eliminate strenuous lifting and carrying.

Many tasks have also been automated because the human body is not well suited to certain heavy or highly repetitive tasks.

Office ergonomics
An increased awareness of musculoskeletal disorders in the past decade has caused office workers to latch onto ergonomic concepts. Keyboard and mouse design and the adjustability features of office chairs and workstations have all evolved from an increased demand for safer work practices. You would not have found the risk factors for musculoskeletal disorder listed on the underside of a keyboard a decade ago, nor would headsets be common for people who spend a significant portion of their day on the telephone.

Product design
Ergonomic products are no longer isolated to the workplace but are pervasive throughout the consumer market. From gardening tools to office supplies to automobile interiors, companies are touting the benefits of ergonomics. In fact, in the latter part of the decade, ergonomic products seemed downright trendy.

Ergonomics is now a common concern for product designers. In the development stages, “behind the scenes” designers strive to make products more responsive to human needs and less clunky and awkward.

Examples of improved usability in product design can be seen in all facets of life, from computer software to Web site navigation to the adjustment levers on office chairs.

Government
Government focus on workplace safety must also be included as one of the big changes in the industry over the past decade. Primarily in response to escalating health-care and injury costs, governments in North America have been paying more attention to ergonomic issues.

Federal ergonomics regulation in the United States, introduced by former president Bill Clinton, were repealed by Congress but several states also have ergonomics legislation in place. While there are currently no mandatory ergonomics regulations in Canada, the federal labour code and the occupational health and safety acts in some provinces include ergonomics provisions.

Like it or not, government standards and legislation have definitely had an effect on increasing the awareness and adoption of ergonomic practices in the workplace and HR departments would be well-advised to keep their eyes open for developments in ergonomic regulations.

Development of the profession
Another important change in ergonomics has been the growth of the profession itself.

In the last 10 years, the Association of Canadian Ergonomists has developed the Canadian Certified Professional Ergonomist (CCPE). There has also been a corresponding increase in professional standards. Sub-sections of the profession are being recognized due to their unique specialities, including physical ergonomics, cognitive ergonomics, office ergonomics, usability and human computer interaction.

Research
One final area of significant advancement has been in the area of research. The University of Waterloo and many other research bodies have developed improved methods and tools for quantifying the physical demands of work.

Mardy Frazer, assistant professor in the department of kinesiology at the University of Waterloo (and associate director of the Ergonomics Initiative) agrees there is now a much better understanding of body tissue tolerance and exposure limits. Essentially, we now know much more about how much is too much, she says.

The future of ergonomic innovation
Overall, the decade has seen major advancements in the ergonomic industry. Ergonomic practices are being adopted by more and more companies every year and product designers are responding well to the needs of business.

Companies that focused efforts on ergonomics in the ’90s have been rewarded with substantial savings through lowered compensation costs, improved productivity, and the “soft” cost benefits of improved morale and overall workplace wellness.

Unfortunately, injury rates and costs are still significant so the work is far from over.

So what should we expect in the coming decade? Well, continued research and development in the science of ergonomics will likely mean continued improvement for employees, employers, practitioners and the general public.

Here are a few examples of ergonomic developments you are likely to see sooner rather than later:

•The recent federal ergonomic legislation in the United States shows the role of government in ergonomics is likely to increase, even though this legislation proved to be too much, too soon.

•“Smart” equipment that will customize a workstation and/or equipment to meet the specific dimensions and unique characteristics of individual employees.

•Ergonomic research and guidelines will evolve to better understand the unique needs of our aging population.

•Equipment design for the office environment will continue to develop to address relatively new issues, such as telecommuting, laptop computers, wireless communication devices and mobile offices.

•Ergonomics will also grow in adoption among the general public, particularly as it relates to the computer. As more households become multi-computer environments, and as computer users become younger — and older — product design will respond.

There has been a dramatic improvement in the fit between the worker and the work in the past 10 years. But realize that this is only the beginning. It will be very interesting to see what comes next.

Chris McIntyre, CCPE is the president of Ergonomics at Work Inc. in Kitchener, Ont. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected] or by telephone at (877) 859-3746.

SIDEBAR
Has your company kept pace?
To identify possible opportunities for ergonomic improvement, think about the various tasks in your facility while asking yourself these questions:

•Do you have jobs that have a high rate of injury or workers requiring modified duty?

•Does your company spend more time managing injury claims instead of developing strategies to prevent the injuries in the first place?

•Do you have jobs where only young, strong men can perform to company standards?

•Do workers complain about the physical demands of certain jobs or refuse to do it?

•Are your employees receiving training in current ergonomic practices? Are they meaningfully involved in driving ergonomic improvements?

•How significant is ergonomics in the overall scheme of importance at your company?

•Are the demands of the work and the characteristics of the workers considered in the design of new equipment or processes? What about during the purchase of tools and supplies?

•Have you considered how your workplace will change in the future, in terms of demographics, technology, work demands? How will you respond?

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