The human factor plays growing role in product design

Ergonomists worked on designing Pontiac's Firebird model. They also helped IBM design its office copiers. Even the angle of a Reach tootbrush reflects ergonomic study.

What is ergonomics?

It's a way of fitting the work, the tool, the machine to the worker, and not vice versa. The aim is to increase productivity or sales, and at the same time make life for the worker more comfortable.

And ergonomics -- also called human factors -- is catching hold. The Human Factors Society in Santa Monica, Calif., records an increase in membership from 90 in 1957 to 1,730 in 1975 and a projected 2,700 this year. This interdisciplinary study of sociology, physiology, psychology, and anthropometry (a science dealing with the measurement of the human body), all of them filtered through engineering, has spread from the military and space programs into such business areas as automobiles, paper, mining, electrical utilities, foundries, office supplies, and so on.

Marian Knowles, executive administrator of the society, says people are more aware of the importance of human factors. "The nuclear accident at Three Mile Island resulted from human mistakes," she noted.

Fitting the work to the worker requires applying the human characteristics to job design. Dr. K. H. E. Kroemer, director of the ergonomics laboratory at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, says that as industry has embraced ergonomics, engineering interest in it has grown and the discipline has become a "hard science rather than a cognitive one." Dr. Kroemer believes that managers as well as engineers will be paying more attention to ergonomics.

"There is an increasing awareness of the necessity to humanize labor and improve the quality of work life. Ergonomics is a means to help productivity and quality and to made working conditions less dangerous," Kroemer says. He adds that this country is behind Japan in its application of these principles.

"Most people believe performance is psychological, but it's in the task design of the job. You can identify the design, management, and hygienic aspects; they all contributed to the worker's attitude.If the work is too hard, too noisy or too specialized, you may hate your job."

"Who wants to go to work hating the job?" he asks.

The principles of ergonomics have been translated to areas beyond industry. For instance, at Liberty Mutual Insurance Company's research laboratory in Hopkinton, Mass., one 15-year-old ergonomics study aimed to find techniques for reducing back injuries, a costly area of workers' compensation claims for the company.

The lab hired workers to lift boxes filled with varying amounts of lead at different frequencies to find the best sizes and techniques for handling heavy objects safely.

Some 45 percent of the company's business deals with workers' compensation, notes Dr. Stover Snook, of Liberty Mutual's laboratory.

"Our largest source of compensable claims is in manual materials handling, as in lifting and lowering boxes. This accounts for 23 percent of the claims. In the lab we try to design out or spread out stress. A second major source is slips and falls, and you can do a lot to change the design of floors and shoes," he says.

The research lab also does fatigue testing to determine how long a person can work at a job without his or her performance suffering. How long, for example, can a biologist peer through a microscope without getting fatigued? Or what is the optimum shift for an air traffic controller?

Dr. Snook says lab research is not the whole solution.

"We can't stress," he said, "that by training how to lift, you can cut pain. We can show that by modifying the workplace or giving a worker a mechanical tool , we can get effective results."

Car design is another area where economics is applied. For instance, Dr. Suzanne Gatchell has worked 12 years at General Motors in Detroit, helping design bodies for all car divisions in Fisher Body except for the Corvette. Her job involves developing the criteria that designers should be using in designing a vehicle.

"When we do a study, we look at a whole range of people. We have to consider size, shape, comfort, and visibility in designing our seats. For example, seat backs are designed differently, because some want lower back support. A seat adjuster helps us make sure we accomodate a whole range," she said.

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