Developments, Controversies, and Applications of Ergonomics

Developments, Controversies, and Applications of Ergonomics

Kathleen P. King (Fordham University, USA) and James J. King (University of Georgia, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-59904-883-3.ch036
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Abstract

A common misconception is that health concerns in the workplace are only relevant in manual-labor fields or work zones that deal with hazardous materials or tools. In modern society, however, nearly every workplace can benefit from studying and applying techniques and understanding that regard the human body and its proper alignment or use. While damage to a secretary’s wrists from day after day of typing on a carelessly-designed keyboard might be as dramatic or immediate as a laborer’s foot being crushed by a dropped concrete slab, such subtle injuries can be just as debilitating and dangerous over time. Ergonomics, as a field, addresses the appropriate alignment and use of the body in all sorts of activities. The current school of thinking focuses on proactive human action; however, the scant notice that ergonomics has gleaned has only been brought on because of the injuries incurred when the proactive approach has been ignored. So, ironically enough, the proactive-themed field has only gained any notice or recognition due to reactive action. Due to the efforts of the US Department of Labor (or, more specifically, the Occupational Safety and Health Association [OSHA]), the field of ergonomics has received increased press and familiarity with the general public in recent years. However, this identity has still largely been focused on workplace safety in factories or manual labor, certainly not seemingly benign and harmless office environments. The general public is rarely made aware of the long-term effects of improper posture from using increasingly ubiquitous office/computer technologies because it is not associated with such heavy labor (Bright, 2006). Nagourney (2002) has done one of many studies which demonstrate that even simple corrections to posture and equipment positioning can result in improved physical health for computer users (Also see ECCE, 2006). Also of note is that numerous studies have documented that leaving small repetitive injuries uncorrected (e.g., injuries that result from improper posture while using computers and other office equipment) has been found to culminate in health problems over time (Ullrich & Ullrich Burke, 2006). Because of these findings and the direct benefits of changing position and movement, public, workplace, and formal education needs to be improved. Rather than isolated or temporary injuries, individuals in these conditions experience compounding effects of improper postures resulting in continuing, repetitive (oftentimes unnoticeable) injuries. Therefore OSHA and a broad base of professionals need to continue to educate the general public so that they understand that ergonomics is more than health and safety codes for manual labor or what may be generally perceived as physically harmful workplace situations. At the same time, both personal and public responsibility for health and safety needs to be exercised in communicating information and solutions, and then implementing them in daily practice.
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Introduction

A common misconception is that health concerns in the workplace are only relevant in manual-labor fields or work zones that deal with hazardous materials or tools. In modern society, however, nearly every workplace can benefit from studying and applying techniques and understanding that regard the human body and its proper alignment or use. While damage to a secretary’s wrists from day after day of typing on a carelessly-designed keyboard might be as dramatic or immediate as a laborer’s foot being crushed by a dropped concrete slab, such subtle injuries can be just as debilitating and dangerous over time.

Ergonomics, as a field, addresses the appropriate alignment and use of the body in all sorts of activities. The current school of thinking focuses on proactive human action; however, the scant notice that ergonomics has gleaned has only been brought on because of the injuries incurred when the proactive approach has been ignored. So, ironically enough, the proactive-themed field has only gained any notice or recognition due to reactive action.

Due to the efforts of the US Department of Labor (or, more specifically, the Occupational Safety and Health Association [OSHA]), the field of ergonomics has received increased press and familiarity with the general public in recent years. However, this identity has still largely been focused on workplace safety in factories or manual labor, certainly not seemingly benign and harmless office environments. The general public is rarely made aware of the long-term effects of improper posture from using increasingly ubiquitous office/computer technologies because it is not associated with such heavy labor (Bright, 2006). Nagourney (2002) has done one of many studies which demonstrate that even simple corrections to posture and equipment positioning can result in improved physical health for computer users (Also see ECCE, 2006).

Also of note is that numerous studies have documented that leaving small repetitive injuries uncorrected (e.g., injuries that result from improper posture while using computers and other office equipment) has been found to culminate in health problems over time (Ullrich & Ullrich Burke, 2006). Because of these findings and the direct benefits of changing position and movement, public, workplace, and formal education needs to be improved.

Rather than isolated or temporary injuries, individuals in these conditions experience compounding effects of improper postures resulting in continuing, repetitive (oftentimes unnoticeable) injuries. Therefore OSHA and a broad base of professionals need to continue to educate the general public so that they understand that ergonomics is more than health and safety codes for manual labor or what may be generally perceived as physically harmful workplace situations. At the same time, both personal and public responsibility for health and safety needs to be exercised in communicating information and solutions, and then implementing them in daily practice.

Ergonomics Example

What does ergonomics mean on a day to day basis for people in 2008 and onward? In a word: responsibility. Bringing ergonomics into a very practical example for most readers, Kay’s article (2001), discusses the dilemma we face with the opposing merits and drawbacks of using laptop computers. Kay describes the merits of the laptop computer, presents the drawbacks in its improper use, and then identifies the ergonomic solutions:

The laptop computer is a valuable tool when portability is a much needed function. It may not be the best choice when considering the ergonomics of the workstation. . . It is always advisable to use add-on devices such as an external keyboard, mouse and monitor. These items are considered essential equipment for users wanting to achieve ergonomically correct positioning their laptop computer. (p. 1)

Rather than an oversimplified solution, this model provides several illustrations of how to position oneself to use a laptop computer. The document also provides explanations as to why these positions are ergonomically effective.

Contrary to what we may assume, we cannot not just take a computer out of a box, sit it on any table or our “lap” and continue to type for 6 hours. We have to consider ergonomic issues or else our health and ultimately our ability to work and to enjoy our recreation time will suffer.

Key Terms in this Chapter

OSHA: Department of Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a branch of the United States Department of Labor which oversees workers issues. ( http://www.osha.gov )

Ergonomics: The commonly accepted definition of ergonomics is the science of designing working environments and the tools in them for maximum worker health and safety and maximum work efficiency.

RMI: Repetitive motion injury

Repetition: Repetition in the field of ergonomics refers to the number of a similar exertions conducted during an activity. For example an office worker may insert 40 letters in envelopes during 10 minutes. User and worker discomfort of an injury that has been associated with repetitive motion.

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