Unfortunately, buying an “ergonomic” product is no guarantee that you'll get something that provides any real ergonomic benefit. That's what one company discovered in, "The Case of the New Chairs."

Ergonomics is now recognized as a valuable element in the workplace. This wasn’t always the case. In the olden days, ergonomics was viewed suspiciously by managers and line workers alike. Managers wondered if it wasn’t a ploy by workers to “take it easy,” and claim ergonomic injuries (also known as repetitive motion injuries) to reduce their workload. Workers wondered if ergonomics would be an excuse to automate, thereby eliminating jobs and reducing the number of workers.

It is now widely accepted that ergonomics can be a win-win. Ergonomics can reduce workplace injuries while improving worker efficiency and morale. Management is now generally open to suggestions of ergonomic processes or tools, knowing they can reduce injuries and worker compensation costs. Workers realize that the goal of ergonomics is to reduce wear and tear on them and to allow them to work with less pain or discomfort.

In fact, the benefits of ergonomics are so widely accepted that it has become a marketing tool. Many items in catalogs of industrial equipment include the label “ergonomic” in the description. This can be confusing. What makes something “ergonomic”? Unfortunately, buying an “ergonomic” product is no guarantee that you have something that provides any real ergonomic benefit.

Here’s an example. Let’s call it, “The Case of the New Chairs.”

A manager bought some new chairs for his workers to replace their old worn-out ones. These chairs were an expensive investment, and he wanted to do right by his workers. He leafed through a catalog of industrial equipment and ordered chairs that were labeled “ergonomic.” However, when the new chairs arrived and were given to the workers, they were quickly set aside and never used. The workers returned to using their old chairs. The manager was furious and frustrated. He had taken special pains to order “ergonomic” chairs, but his workers refused to use them.

What went wrong?

First, let’s review the definition of ergonomics: “Ergonomics is fitting the work to the worker.” This means that any ergonomic tool or equipment must fit the worker and the work. In “The Case of the New Chairs,” the workers did not work at standard-height desks or tables. They sorted items into cases that extended as high as 6 feet. The new chairs were too low to accommodate work at that height. Although the chairs could be raised up, they could not be raised high enough. The workers returned to their old chairs, which were much higher than the new ones, so they could reach to the top of the case while sitting down. Failure to fully analyze the work led to an incorrect purchase. The type of chairs that should have been ordered were stools. So although the chairs were labeled as “ergonomic,” they did not fit the work environment.

There are many other cases of “ergonomic” tools being used in unsuitable environments. The moral of the story is that the label “ergonomic” is meaningless without full consideration of the work, the worker, and the environment in which it is being used.

So what’s your story? Have you ever implemented an “ergonomic” product that didn’t quite work out? What went wrong and how did you solve the problem? Share your thoughts!

Delia Treaster, Ph.D., is a certified professional ergonomist and writes on various ergonomic issues, drawing on decades of experience in occupational ergonomics. She has been an ergonomic contractor with Humantech, one of the largest workplace ergonomics consulting firms in the United States. Prior to working for Humantech, Delia was an ergonomic consultant for the U.S. Postal Service, a senior ergonomic specialist with Travelers Insurance, and a research scientist at Battelle Memorial Institute. She has a master’s degree in human factors engineering and a Ph.D. in biomechanics from Ohio State University.

E-mails to Delia can be sent to ergocorner@yahoo.com.

Editor’s note: “Ergo Corner” is part of a series of guest spots by industry experts that will appear regularly on ASSEMBLY’s blog page. Check back frequently to read more commentaries from Delia, as well as contributions on product testing, automated assembly systems, machine vision and robotics.