Now, for my column, which is now called "Ergonomic Consulting." I want to provide useful information for chiropractors who have the interest or opportunities to work with industries in some form of this related endeavor, and over the course of the next few columns, I'm going to discuss a variety of ergonomic issues.
To begin, I'm going to attempt to provide a meaningful definition of "ergonomics." It's been my impression that this field is somewhat like the chiropractic profession: greatly misunderstood. For example, when I first began my MSc program at the U. of S., a friend of mine (a DC) chuckled. He asked why I was interested and confidently told me, "Ergonomics doesn't work." That's a bit like saying chiropractic doesn't work. It's certainly not a fair assessment of either profession. More recently, I heard a talk radio host mention ergonomics on his show. The individual said that it was the study of how people sit. (I thought that, too, was a bit shortsighted.)
So, what exactly is ergonomics? As with many things, the answer really depends on whom you ask. To the consumer, ergonomics involves making interesting and often useless modifications to common tools and appliances. To the business community, it's one more thing that helps to define the usefulness of particular products. (It seems as if every product is advertised as both "new and ergonomically designed" these days.) To the ergonomist, however, it's a specific profession with its own science, literature, educational programs, credentialing and philosophy.
Ergonomics is actually the study of how individuals interact with their environment. While "ergo" literally means "work", ergonomics is not limited to the workplace, or to the design of equipment, such as hand tools or office chairs. In fact, it's a rather broad-based discipline that takes into account a variety of factors, including, but by no means limited to: anthropometry, work-place design, tool design, work pace, shift work, environmental factors, psychosocial concerns and stresses, and job and life satisfaction. Ergonomics is really a holistic approach to looking at the compatibility between an individual and his or her environment, on and off the job. In addition, some of the everyday things we take for granted are based on ergonomic principles - like having the hot water faucet always on the left, and "on" traditionally being the "up" position of a switch. We get confused (and may even become injured) when common things don't work the way we are accustomed.
One interesting aspect of this emerging profession is the increasing attention directed at a concept referred to as "universal design." This specific area focuses on increasing the usability of our environment for individuals with different abilities (the "differently abled"). While some of this attention is targeted at individuals with medical disabilities, many specific groups, such as the growing elderly population, also benefit from the attention. A good example of an ergonomic development that has made life easier for many individuals is the "big-button" telephone. This device has large numbers that are visible not only to the visually impaired person, but also to the older person whose sight isn't what it used to be. In addition, the large buttons make it easier for people with arthritis to negotiate the simple act of dialing the telephone. The reverse of this trend can be seen in the miniaturization of many electronic devices. I recently purchased a small digital camcorder. It has a small LCD screen that contains a touch-sensitive control panel. The problem is, my fingers are almost bigger than the screen, so it's not all that easy to negotiate the controls. While I appreciate the small size of the camera (it makes carrying it in my luggage very easy), the small screen and tiny controls actually make using the camera quite difficult.
It's worth noting that most university-based ergonomic programs fall under the auspices of the industrial engineering department. In fact, they typically involve an engineering mindset. My experience has given me some interesting perspectives on this aspect of the ergonomic profession. While there is definitely an engineering "bent" to the profession, it's not all measurements and numbers. In fact, the science of ergonomics is often paired with human factors, as seen in one of the larger professional associations, the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. Rather than focusing on the engineering and design aspects, the "human factors" side is more interested in the psychosocial elements of the equation. We'll explore this more in future articles.
For now, let me state that it's good to be back as a columnist at Dynamic Chiropractic. Over the years, I've always enjoyed the comments and feedback, and I'm often surprised at how many people have read, and even enjoyed, my writing. If there are specific questions or issues that you'd like me to address in the future (or if you just want to "chat"), feel free to contact me.
Paul Hooper, DC, MPH
Diamond Bar, California
Click here for previous articles by Paul Hooper, DC, MPH, MS.