Ergonomics Then and Now

By Emanoil, Pamela | Human Ecology, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview
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Ergonomics Then and Now

Emanoil, Pamela, Human Ecology

The bridge from the college's beginnings its work today is paved with the efforts of countless scholars who have sought to improve people's lives. Work to improve life in the work environment began 100 years ago with the Small Publication Saving Steps and continues today in the Cornell Human Factors and Ergonomics Research Laboratory.

Creating a Healthy and Productive Workplace

Musculoskeletal disorders make up the largest portion of reported job-related injuries and illnesses in the United States. Studies conducted in the Cornell Human Factors and Ergonomics Research Laboratory can help employers reduce risk for these injuries and increase productivity as well.

If you browsed through the local office supply store with ergonomics expert Alan Hedge, he might influence you to see things differently. Down the computer aisle, he'd probably tell you that the split keyboard that looks cool probably won't prevent carpal tunnel syndrome. In fact, it may make the pain worse. He could warn you that the kind of computer mouse that catches your eye might put you at risk for musculoskeletal disorders. And the most expensive chairs? Their adjustable arms alone won't improve your wrist posture when you peck away at your keyboard.

"Many of the things people call ergonomically designed really aren't," Hedge says. "That finding hasn't always made me the most popular person."

But Hedge is hardly concerned with winning popularity contests. Instead, his goal is to create work situations that are comfortable, safe, and productive for people. That's what ergonomics is all about.

In recent years, ergonomics has become all the rage of computer and office equipment manufacturers. Why so?

"Marketing," Hedge says simply.

Ergonomics is an applied science discipline in which researchers bring to bear knowledge about behavioral and biological sciences to change the design of work products and work systems and, ultimately, to help people and organizations. The first publication on ergonomics was in 1857. A Polish professor wrote a scientific paper about how people liked to work. His research area didn't catch on until 1949, however, when the British Admiralty wanted to develop a way to describe the way work was conducted in military technology settings, such as flying airplanes, operating tanks, and navigating ships. At the time, a Welsh professor, Hugh Murrell, suggested the term "ergonomics," which is Greek for "natural laws of work." The name was officially accepted in 1950.

Today, there has been an explosion in ergonomic gadgets in the marketplace. Many products make claims of being ergonomically designed, and they wear the "ergonomic" label.

"One of the things we look at is whether that's true," Hedge says. "It's difficult to develop a truly ergonomic design."

But the good news is that Hedge is finding in his recent research studies that despite the proliferation of so-called ergonomic office equipment currently on store shelves, some particular designs truly earn their ergonomic labels.

Most of Hedge's work is conducted in the Cornell Human Factors and Ergonomics Research Laboratory, a facility for research on usability, human performance, comfort, stress, health, environmental simulation, and user preferences for all aspects of modern work environments. The room is long and rectangular and filled with all the gizmos of an office cubicle of the future: vertical split keyboards with mirror attachments; game controllers; freestanding, articulated keyboard trays; and computer chairs with headrests that look like they'd be better suited for a dental patient than a business professional.

The room was designed to be flexible so that it can accommodate any variety of ergonomics research projects. A picture window at one end and a ceiling that can support various types of light fixtures enables researchers to run studies on the effects of daylight and artificial light on performance.

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