Are you sitting comfortably?
Professor Alan Hedge has over 40 years of experience teaching and researching ergonomics and is now one of the world’s foremost experts in the field. He visited Australia on a recent speaking tour hosted by Humanscale, and here shares with FM what sparked his interest and how ergonomics has changed over the last four decades.
FM: How did you become interested in this field?
AH: What started my interest in ergonomics was actually an interest in computers and, back in the 1970s, computers were just transitioning from being mainframes to the first mini and microcomputers. It was clear that the technology was going to impact the workplace. When I finished my PhD, I also worked in two government offices in the UK and I thought the office designs were just awful. They really didn’t support optimal working, so those two things combined led me to go into ergonomics and also to focus on how to design office workplaces. At the time that was seen as a crazy thing to do, because the office wasn’t seen as any kind of dangerous workplace. But in retrospect now we see that the majority of the injuries that people get in workplaces are related to poorly designed office settings.
What was wrong with those original offices?
They were designed according to principles of open office planning. Essentially, the idea was not to have any walls, but just to have a few moveable barriers, to foster communication between people. The reality was a little different. It led to high levels of noise and distraction, making it very difficult to concentrate. It also led to a lot of visual disturbance problems, because people were walking past you all the time. It led to concerns about privacy. People could walk up behind you and surprise you and overall it didn’t seem an optimal environment.
But I asked the question: could this affect your health as well? And the big surprise was, yes, it does. Up until then all the designers had focused on was whether it would improve communication’ and no one had said, ‘Are there some potential adverse effects of this?’ So that’s what interested me.
How have perceptions of ergonomics changed over that period?
Ergonomics traditionally looked at environments that clearly seemed to be unsafe. So, for example, coal mining or steel working or people working on oilrigs – all potentially risky environments. The office environment was seen as very safe and comfortable. Now what we see is that when you look at musculoskeletal problems, which account for about two-thirds of all compensable injuries in most developed countries, those are occurring because of how people are working with computers in office workplaces. The bad news and the frustration is that ergonomics hasn’t been taken seriously in these environments. We do now have office ergonomic guidelines and that’s reassuring, but many companies are still really ignorant of what those guidelines are and how to have people working effectively.
The very first standards were developed in the mid 1970s for how we should be working with computers. And a lot of organisations still apply those same standards, even though technology has changed, the workplace has dramatically changed. And those standards were not based on health, they were based on what you could technically engineer at a reasonable price. That’s why we see that companies are wasting a billion dollars a week, not only in Australia, but in the US, on injuries that are 100 percent preventable.
What are the current main areas of concern in the field?
We’ve seen a remarkable change in office design that is a result of changes in technology. When I started doing work in this field the big change was going from typewriters to computers. But for nearly three decades people have been sitting in one position for all of the workday. And in the early days of computers and microcomputers, these were big and they were heavy. You had heavy displays, cathode ray tubes. You couldn’t carry these and move around.
In the last 10 years all of that has changed. We now have Wi-Fi networks that never existed before. Obviously, the internet preceded the development of the Wi-Fi, but with cloud-based computing you can have a small device. It may be handheld like a smartphone. It could be a tablet, like an iPad or Microsoft Surface.
It could be a notebook computer and you can work anywhere that you have access to Wi-Fi. That means that, from an ergonomic standpoint, we don’t have to focus on people working in just one place in the building, because the downside of that was that you sat for too long in the day. And what we’ve also seen over the last three decades is a rise in obesity in every developed country in the world. This rise links back to how much people are sitting down and links back to how work is designed.
But what makes the current decade really exciting is that now we can look at the whole building as the workplace, and design for people to move through that whole building in an effective way. Rather than just trying to focus on the person sitting in one place for one time, working with one piece of equipment.
What do you hope to see in the future?
One other thing that we’ve really been trying to get companies to realise is often they will pay for employees to have an annual eyesight check-up, and an annual health check-up. And we really want to encourage them to do an annual ergonomics check-up. Because over time your body is going to change with age, over time the technology will change, the job content will change, where you’re working in a building may change. And over time the building itself will change, because things age and they have to be replaced and upgraded. So it’s a continuous improvement process. So if all you do is say, ‘I’m only going to use ergonomics when somebody has a serious problem,’ you’re really missing out. Because to get to that point of the serious problem, their work performance has deteriorated over time. So what we want companies to do is very proactive. We call it ‘prescient ergonomics’.
This article also appears in the December/January issue of Facility Management magazine.
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