Ergonomics and our people

By Camille Major, MS, MBA, CPE

Finally! Ergonomics is a household word! However, do the advertisers throwing the term around really know what it means? We’ve seen it in the media to describe chairs, pens, suitcase handles, kitchen tools and even bed mattresses! If it is called “ergonomic,” is it really? Is there a committee that screens public requests and certifies an item or process as “ergonomic?” Or is there a standard like Six Sigma or ISO that ergonomic products must meet. Sadly, at the time of this writing, the answers are no and no.

So that leaves us with … drum roll … you and I to decide for ourselves! Yes, we must use our extensive knowledge and experiences to determine for ourselves.

As industrial engineers, we remember the class that taught ergonomics. To refresh your memory, it is described by Merriam-Webster as:

  1. An applied science concerned with designing and arranging things people use so that the people and things interact most efficiently and safely —called also biotechnology, human engineering, human factors.
  2. The design characteristics of an object resulting especially from the application of the science of ergonomics.

We look at our environments, processes, tools and review them based on the person that is using them. We need “it” to work for as many different people as possible. The first step is to take a look at the “people” part of the equation. Not only do people come in different body dimensions (official term: anthropometrics) but have different physical capabilities and human factors to consider. Many guidelines exist to outline the best way to utilize our people as a resource.

We have various anthropometric tables that outline measurements for men and women at various heights. 5th Percentile (the smaller size) and even the 95th Percentile (the larger size) is considered for body part segments as well as heights. Some tables even include expected strength capabilities. It is important to design for the “worst case scenario” while using a conservative approach. For example, if it is an opening (doorway, hand access) then we would use the measurement for 95th % male hand size or height. If it something that requires strength then we would use the measurement for a 5th % female strength capabilities.

The latest trend is reviewing our workforce based on the population trends such as having a more “seasoned” workforce, changing body sizes/weights and increases in health/medical concerns and how these affect our workforce. By utilizing the conservative approach we can be sure we are in compliance and are ready to accept the challenges of our new workforce. Our goal is to keep our number one asset, our people, primed and ready with the environment, processes, and tools needed to optimize their job performance. Failure to do this can reduce productivity and even legal liability. For the general public, ergonomics is a matter of physical comfort and protecting their long term health. In this regard, we all wear many hats, but ergonomics should be one of them. Ergo, we all need to keep ergo on our minds at least part of the time.

Tipping my Ergo Hat to all of you!