Ergonomic Economics

Dec. 3, 2004
Sorting out the good (products) from the bad
Ergonomics. It’s the biggest buzzword in offices today, and a whole industry is being built around it.Consider the abundance of products claiming to be ergonomic –  from chairs and workstations, to keyboards, writing utensils, and even lighting. But how can you sort out the good from the bad? What makes one product more ergonomic than another?
Facilities managers often must answer these questions, especially as they work with end-users in solving real workplace issues. Large corporate end-users are likely to have their own certified professional ergonomist (CPE), safety engineer, or industrial hygienist, but mid-sized companies and small businesses often rely on the expertise of furniture dealers and professional organizations when it comes to selecting ergonomic products for the office.A Common-Sense ApproachDr. Jerome Congleton, a certified professional ergonomist at College Station, TX-based Texas A&M University’s School of Rural Public Health, says that common sense should be your guide. Whether you’re selecting office seating, worksurfaces, or computer equipment and accessories, the human factor is the key element of ergonomic intuition. Is the product comfortable after you’ve used it for several hours? Is it intuitive in the way it operates, or does it require instruction or even training in order to be used correctly?“Think about what makes sense,” Congleton points out. “Look for features like soft, rounded edges and corners to prevent pressure points. Also, consider smooth materials with tactile feedback, and intuitive controls that a pictogram can explain. In terms of monitors and electronic products, make sure they are non-glare and low in VOC emission, and are flexible and adjustable.”Martha Parker, CPE and owner of MERG Ergonomics in Houston, recommends a very simple test for determining a product’s ergonomic integrity: “Ask yourself whether the product is going to fit a wide variety of employee shapes and sizes. Any ergonomic product – whether it’s a desk, chair, keyboard, monitor, or accessory item – should be able to be used by workers ranging in size from the fifth percentile female (4 feet, 11 inches tall; 113 pounds) to the 95th percentile male (6 feet, 2 inches tall; 246 pounds).”What this basically means is that for many products, adjustability is a must. Chairs, workstations/desks, keyboard trays, and monitor arms must all be extremely adjustable to accommodate the wide variety of worker shapes and sizes that exist. And in terms of adjustability, more is usually better.Worth It? You Bet.Manufacturers who build more adjustability into their products must typically charge more to cover the increased manufacturing costs.“Companies can expect to pay 20-percent to 25-percent more for highly adjustable products,” Parker admits. “But, what seems like a higher expense actually results in savings over a period of months rather than years.”Congleton also points out that ergonomic products are the wave of the future.“If I’m an end-user, and I’m concerned with issues of productivity and employee health and risk management, don’t you think I’m going to be drawn to a truly ergonomic product?” Congleton asks. “They translate to real, bottom-line dollars in terms of increased productivity, decreased absenteeism, long-term functionality and usefulness of products, and a host of issues like that.”Mark Taylor is owner of Texas-based Taylor Creative, a private marketing firm that specializes in organization development and marketing. He is a 15-year veteran of the ergonomics manufacturing industry and can be contacted via e-mail at ([email protected]).

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