Understanding Ergonomics

March 1, 2003
Donna Vining, FASID

Understanding Ergonomics

When I think of a work station, I imagine a horizontal surface with a computer, keyboard and mouse—perhaps a telephone to the left or right of a monitor, some clear space for writing, maybe an "in" box, or perhaps even a drafting board. However, for many people a "work station" means something much different. A person who works in a poultry processing plant may stand for long hours with a sharp knife, leaning over an assembly line. A masseuse's "work station" is typically a small room with a person lying on a table. Someone who works for NASA may be performing her work at a station that is literally in space, with zero gravity! Who designs these varied environments so that people can perform their work with minimal discomfort or injury? Some designers may seem to have little involvement, while others are heavily involved, depending on the project or space in question. One thing is certain: ergonomics is a vital aspect of interior design. Collaborating with an ergonomist is just one of the many ways an interior designer adds value and provides a higher level of service to his or her client.Did you know that there is an entire profession devoted to ergonomics? Ergonomists are people who practice "the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of the interactions among human and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance," according to the International Ergonomics Association Executive Council, 2000. For example, ergonomists consider human factors and the older adult, studying how the hand of an elderly person uses a knife or scissors. They study stairways to determine why, despite awareness of stairway hazards, poor stair design continues to result in so many falls and injuries. They have developed a new road sign alphabet to improve legibility and recognition of road signs. Ergonomists study the challenges that aging brings to the task of finding one's way around a complex built environment. By analyzing user behavior and identifying design problems, ergonomists can even prevent medications from becoming poisons. (Human Factors & Ergonomics Society; an interior designer creates a computer work station for someone, however, he or she typically designs space for the following components: a keyboard, mouse, monitor, chair, document holder and telephone. Professor Alan Hedge at the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis, College of Human Ecology at Cornell University, had his class design a Web page for a Human Factors class at the college. Dubbed "Ergo Tips" (http:// home.html), the student-designed Web page is an informative tool for interior designers and computer-users and offers quick guidelines to improve the ergonomic design of computer work stations. A few of the tips found on the Web page are shown in the chart included here (at right).In a recent book, Design Is . . . Words, Things, People, Buildings, and Places (Metropolis Books), Natalie Angier, science writer for The New York Times brainstormed about what the term "work station" might mean in the year 2021. She stated, "As we spend ever longer hours immobilized in front of computers, there is no 'natural' way to stay in shape any longer. Instead we must rally every gram of self-discipline we have to trudge off to gyms and engage in requisite periods of exercise. I would like to see some truly ergonomic office furniture: computer work stations that are also workout stations equipped with a variety of inconspicuous pedals and pulleys to allow people to use their bodies as well as their brains throughout the long workday." Angier's description of a futuristic work station may be a far cry from my description of a horizontal surface with a computer, but her vision serves as a reminder to professional interior designers: We must continue to tune in to the ergonomic needs of the public we serve, designing work stations that will meet users' requirements today, while being adaptable to the technology of tomorrow. ERGO TIPS
CHAIRSTip 1: Adjust the height of your chair to use the key board and mouse properly (see keyboard and mouse sections after finishing chair tips). If, after making this height adjustment, your feet cannot be placed flat on the floor, use a footrest.* Encourages good posture.
* Enables proper sitting height.
* Avoids pressure placed on the back of the thigh.
* Promotes circulation.Tip 2: Adjust your chair to sit in a reclined position, lean back slightly from an upright position.* Increases comfort.
* Decreases lumbar disc pressure (lower back).
* Relaxes your back muscles.
* Minimizes pressure on the spine, neck muscles and vertebrae.Tip 3: Keep your back naturally curved. Support your lower back with a lumbar support (a cushion or a pad).* Helps maintain a natural curve of the spine.
* Helps maintain good posture.Tip 4: Have some space between the undersides of your knees and the seat of your chair.* Reduces the pressure applied to the nerves in the back of your knees.
* Helps increase circulation.Tip 5: Keep your feet flat on the floor or the footrest. Do not tuck your feet under your chair.* Reduces tension in the knee and ankle joints.
* Helps increase circulation.Tip 6: Rest your elbows lightly on a chair armrest while you are typing or doing another task.* Avoids creating pressure points.Monitor Tip 1: Center the monitor in front of you. * Places the body in a neutral position. Tip 2: With your back against the back of your chair, place the monitor at an arm's length away from you (distance from shoulder to fingertip while keeping your arm straight). * Helps prevent eye strain.
* Prevents leaning forward. Tip 3: Position the monitor at eye level. This should be about two to three inches below the top of the monitor casing. * Places your head and neck in a neutral position.KeyboardTip 1: Position the keyboard so that your forearms are parallel to your thighs when your feet are flat on the floor.* Helps maintain blood flow in the hands and arms.
* Decreases muscle strain and tension.Tip 2: Use a keyboard tray that tilts downward, if possible.* Places your wrists in a neutral position.Tip 3: Center the spacebar of the keyboard in front of you.
* Helps place your body in a neutral position.Tip 4: Do not use a wrist rest.* Helps prevent putting pressure on the nerves running through your MouseTip 1: Place the mouse on the side of the hand that is most comfortable to you.* Places the arms in a neutral and relaxed position.
* Prevents overreaching and twisting of the
shoulder, arm and wrist.Tip 2: Keep your elbow close to your body and allow your arm to relax while you use the mouse.* Places the arms in a neutral and relaxed position.
* Prevents overreaching and twisting of the
shoulder, arm and wrist.Tip 3: Use the mouse with your elbow as a pivot point. Keep wrist straight.* Minimizes wrist movement.
* Maintains neutral position of the hand and wrist.
* Helps prevent tendon damage.ToolsTip 1: Use a document holder and place it in front of the monitor or next to the monitor.w Prevents neck and eye strain.Donna Vinning, FASID, is president of the National Council for Interior Design Qualification. NCIDQ is located at 1200 18th St. N.W., Ste. 1001, Washington, DC 20036; (202) 721-0220.

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