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Ergonomic questions have no easy answers.

If ergonomics were an exact science, we would always be perfectly comfortable at our desks and computers. Precise postures and wrist positions could be prescribed to eliminate stress and trauma, and we would sit in the ideal chair for our body type, weight and profession. But in real life, the study of office ergonomics elicits more questions than it resolves.

Dr. Christin Grant is an ergonomic and industrial design consultant whose interests and concerns about the human body and its relationship to its environment have been ongoing for 15 years. She aided the development of Action Office Systems with Bob Propst (originator of the cubicle) and Herman Miller's best-selling Equa and Ergon chairs. Grant was a founding member of the original Facility Management Institute and is associated with the University of Michigan Center for Ergonomics.

You would expect her Ann Arbor office to be efficiently laid out, with the most comfortable chairs, the most ergonomically-correct workstations and the latest technology in office accessories. And it is. Grant has it all -- piles of wrist rests, boxes full of keyboard trays, the best ergonomic chairs on the market. If it is a noteworthy development, she very likely has seen it, tried it and evaluated it.

Last year, Herman Miller published Grant's issues paper on Cumulative Trauma Disorders, which are injuries of the muscles, tendons, tissues and nerves, and affected by such factors as repetition and vibration. The booklet emphasizes practical ideas for analyzing and treating potential CTD problem areas.

Furniture is not dangerous

Because of media and legislative attention to CTDs in the workplace, Grant said she is seeing increasing claims that a particular workstation or chair will prevent or eliminate such problems. "I'm not sure anybody can prove that furniture in any respect outweighs things like break schedules, attitudes, stress, single-task jobs, long hours and the place where repetitive tasks are done. All those are non-furniture factors relating to CTDs," Dr. Grant said. "I'm not ready to indict furniture.

"There aren't many dangerous pieces of furniture," she added, "but there are faulty combinations of furniture or harmful applications, such as giving someone the wrong furniture for his/her height, size or job.

"What worries me most," Grant said, "is seeing outrageous claims on furniture manufacturers' brochures, like this: |The only chair that protects against carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitious strain injuries, the only chair that eliminates pain and tension.'

"So many fundamental issues remain to be decided. Much more research needs to be done. It is too bad when ergonomic issues critical to users are being decided on the testimonial of a doctor somewhere who says, |This is a good posture.' It's entirely possible customers are going to start asking for a lot more than that," Grant said. "They will want to see real results with real users.

"That may be one of the reasons why consumers choose one designer's or one manufacturer's product over another," she continued. "The company that can base its designs on real research will have a competitive edge. Consumers are learning a lot about ergonomics. They are going to start asking some very embarrassing questions, demanding real answers rather than marketing hype."


Liability is also a big issue. Manufacturers are going to have to be more careful about how they sell things and the claims they make, she said. "This also applies to training people to use the furniture. It you say the best height for your keyboard is approximately elbow height, and someone follows your instructions and still ends up with a problem, have you given them bad advice? What the consumer usually gets is conventional wisdom and the best available information, but the liability issue is creating a scary climate out there."

Manufacturers today are walking a tightrope, Grant added. "I may say, |You have to train people,' but some companies are taking the stance that if they train people how to do things, they are also telling them what not to do, and becoming liable for the quality of advice if it gets people in trouble. Right now there are many millions of dollars in liability suits against six to nine large computer manufacturers which are, by and large, CTD issues. Those are just the big guys. There are always lots of little lawsuits against chair manufacturers by people with back problems."

What is |good ergonomics'?

In attending conventions, industry shows, offices and factories, Grant encounters physical therapists, occupational therapists, doctors and neurologists with diametrically opposed views as to what is "good ergonomics." At a recent trade show exhibit, she said she heard almost as many premises for what is a good posture, what is a good way to work, as there were vendors present.

"There are raging controversies about the advantages of forward tilt and backward tilt chairs and: different sorts of recline. One company's rep says this furniture is great because it makes you sit up straight and that is good. Another says theirs is great because you recline and that is the best way to work.

"You hear the same arguments with keyboards," Grant continued. Some consultants and production people want the keyboard low, others recommend almost a vertical keyboard.

"One document stand puts information beside the video display terminal, letting the eyes make all the movement -- they say that's the right way. Another puts the document below the screen, and the neck or head makes the most movement." Grant said.

Another contradiction has to do with whether the seat pan should go forward and back. "A chair that forces a person into a particular position and doesn't give them any choice is problematic, and there are many like that," she added.

|Let the user adjust.'

"The body is such a complicated system," Grant continued. "You push here and something pops out there, as people in sports find out. You can't treat these things simplistically. For example, people who talk about where to put the document in relation to the computer monitor talk about what happens to the neck, but they leave out what it takes for the eyes to follow. Others talk about just the eyes, but omit the f act that the neck has to move."

Grant said, "The field seems to be heading in the direction of |Let the user adjust it. Let's not make decisions any more. Let's give adjustments and some education to the user and abrogate on all these decisions. We'll just recommend that the user change posture a lot. Nobody can argue with that. If users have a bad posture, let's hope they change it after five minutes.'"

Manufacturer responsibilities

Manufacturers who talk about ergonomics must have the subject down cold, Grant said. "Look at your product from all sides. Get people to beat it up and find out what the objections are going to be because none of these issues is simple. Get your marketing straight. Explain. Educate.

"A group of facility designers told me they can't understand why manufacturers design things the way they do," she continued. "Companies talk about beauty, image, quality, durability. Then they say, And, by the way, the back rest does this.' Manufacturers don't provide enough information. They have to do an educational sell.

"Then they should provide long-term training in how to use the furniture, If they don't offer training and clear explanations over the life of the product, not just how to adjust it, but why, and when, and to what degree, all the adjustments in the world will not matter. That is where a lot of manufacturers are missing the boat," Grant said.

Grant stressed that it is also important for manufacturers to make sure that what is rolling off the line is what they originally had in mind. "This is usually a quality control issue," she said.

"For example, chairs may have a little change made in the foam. It doesn't feel the way it did in the prototype. Quality control departments are not always set up to measure those fine little differences a person can feel. They don't bother to do that, they just assume the foam is a given."

This is something that affects comfort and many companies neglect to keep testing, Grant said. "They believe that once the chair is in production, all they have to do is make sure the measurements -- heights of seats and backs -- are right. But other things affect comfort, like the cushion and the feel of the recline. Those are hard to measure."

Research, research, research

Grant said one of her biggest complaints is about chairs. "Right now, ergonomics in the contract furniture industry is equated with adjustability. Those terms are practically interchangeable. It is not a bad idea, but that leaves out a whole lot of important things, like what happens to the elbow when a chair has plastic armrests. Plastic is the choice of engineers and quality control people because it lasts longer and is cheaper, but resting elbows on hard flat surfaces can contribute to localized mechanical stress. We need to research the effect of hard surfaces on different parts of the body."

Other major questions Grant would like to see researched include how important furniture is overall in the ergonomic ills people are experiencing. "There is so much we don't know, so many questions that have no answers other than conventional ergonomic wisdom and biomechanical models. We are just beginning to find out about the effects of using keyboards. We don't know it it is force, repetition or wrist posture that is most damaging."

People are starting to think about the temperature of things that people touch while working and to look at material temperature as another ergonomic factor, she said. Because wood is a better insulator than metal, and doesn't conduct heat away from the body, wood work surfaces may offer more ergonomic benefits, Grant said, but added that this subject also needs researching.

Grant said she would like to see manufacturers encourage government to start funding more ergonomic research. There are consortiums beginning to collectively support such study, and individual companies funding research that will eventually benefit all companies, she added.

Lastly, Grant said she is concerned about a reduction of experimentation and risk taking on the part of furniture designers and manufacturers that may be a fallout of all the litigation and new standards that are evolving. "Suppose someone finds a new posture or a new working tool that is very controversial, like a keyboard tray. The tray can be adjusted incorrectly and really mess people up. But it's possible that if it were adjusted properly it would be the best thing for anybody.

"The manufacturer who is afraid that his product will be abused or used wrong and that he will get slapped with a lawsuit is going to make a very safe product, no different from any other. In the end, every one will just copy each other," Grant concluded. "I'm really concerned that we may be heading into an era of conformity and dull stuff."
COPYRIGHT 1992 Vance Publishing Corp.
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Garet, Barbara
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:Feb 1, 1992
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