NEW YORK _ Make the tool fit the worker. Ergonomics. It hardly
sounds revolutionary, but it's revolutionizing the workplace.
Chairs for proper posture, adjustable computer stations,
assembly lines at the right height, and tools that don't vibrate
seem sensible. Yet, 5 million Americans have injuries that stem
from improper ergonomics, the National Institute for Occupational
Safety and Health said.
"An ergonomic problem is as likely to get you as everything
else put together," said Roger Stephens, head of the Occupational
Safety and Health Administration's ergonomic division.
Ergonomics has become a major workplace concern of the 1990s.
Labor is demanding it, companies are implementing it, and
governments are regulating it. And some are making a profit from
the problem. As in all fields, snake-oil salesmen exist, but work
is under way to accredit experts.
Automation speeds the pace of work, and repetition of an
awkward or overextended motion can stress the hands, arms, back or
legs. By the next decade, half of all workers will have jobs with
the potential for repetitive-motion injury, the Institute said.
In the past, a person using an old-fashioned typewriter, for
instance, stopped typing to make corrections, change paper and look
up the spelling of a word. A person on a word processor has none of
those built-in breaks.
The consequences of poor ergonomics can be debilitating.
Sandra Peddie was an assistant editor at New York Newsday in
Long Island when a repetitive strain injury in her forearms forced
her to take disability leave in 1990, she said.
"At my worst, I couldn't lift up a teacup. I couldn't dress
said Peddie, 37. She said pain still prevents her from driving
or turning doorknobs. She tried to go back to work on a
voice-activated computer, but found it too painful.
Her case is extreme, but repetitive injuries in 1982 accounted
for 21 percent of occupational illnesses. By 1990, they accounted
for 56 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said.
As a result, "Ergonomics is becoming an integral part of an
overall safety program within a number of large companies," said
Marilyn Joyce, president of the Joyce Institute, a Seattle-based
"Just as safety people have to deal with fire hazards or
chemical hazards . . . they now are having to look at the tools
that people are using."
Textron Inc. implemented ergonomic changes in 1989 in hopes of
reducing back injuries at plants that built helicopters and
fastners, said company spokesman Raymond W. Caine Jr. Safety and
production supervisors also were trained to look for potential
ergonomic hazards, he said.
A year into the program, the number of back injuries was down
10 percent and productivity increased in some cases, Caine said. …