P. van Wely of Philips Medical Service in The Netherlands has carefully observed behaviour associated with ergonomics (the human factor) and the work place. People agree that ergonomics is important to ensure the comfort and health of workers so their efficiency at work is optimized. Factory managers have many ways to measure production efficiency but physiological efficiency is problematic. Symptoms related to individuals are always highly subjective. Designing an experiment to reduce the problems associated with subjective measurements was a main goal of van Wely. He had observed that designers of work equipment, industrial and mechanical engineers do not automatically associate their technical knowledge of design with good ergonomic design to benefit the workers. The researcher developed an experiment “to get more information on the connection between the design of the work (the task and activity) and the health of the workers” (van Wely, 263).
Historically production efficiency has been give priority over the physiological efficiency of the human body. Assessment of comfort, health and efficiency in terms of medical problems, in other words disease, is not easy to do. The units of measurement are not comparable and rely on subjective reports. The type of information needed to make the assessments include statistics on absenteeism, diagnosis and workers’ complaints from medical records. Taking information from workers’ medical records though involves a lot of ethical issues that make that approach difficult. Therefore van Wely designed a different strategy and used it in order to conduct a health and ergonomics study. He chose absenteeism as a realistic measure of health. Absenteeism from musculoskeletal problems was about 50 days higher for men than other disease systems numbering 219 days per year per 100 men. For women the number was high (177 days per year per 100 women) but the disease systems of nervous and acute respiratory was higher for the women. The study’s goal became to determine whether or not there was a link between musculoskeletal symptoms of disease and a worker’s work posture. Twelve poor postures and the resulting symptoms were identified. In order to validate the reliability of the 39 cases once a link was established, more validation was done The researcher and the physiotherapy doctor re-evaluated all of the 39 cases identified to establish if the link was strong or weak. Twenty one cases were found to be caused by three types of work activities identified as standing, seated and mobile.
Another evaluation was then conducted to determine if the cause was bad design of the equipment/tool or inappropriate use by the worker. Looking at the problem from different perspectives was helpful to arrive at a full understanding of how or why the musculoskeletal problems occurred. The symptom were then assessed as having minor or major short-term effect or major long-term effects with the result that bad posture is an important factor. Three general prevention categories are good equipment design, training of workers for safe use, and a medical exam before the worker starts the new task. (497 words)
Are the ideas put forward in the paper still valid in 2012?
Some may argue that due to robotics entering the workplace ergonomics is out-of-date but the strategies offered by van Wiley still make good common sense today. . Poorly designed equipment and workstations still cause back strain. Lifting and other tasks can cause pain to the musculoskeletal system due to heavy weights, twisting while lifting a load and bad posture. Workers sitting all day at a desk still have complaints and solutions are the same such as using adjustable chairs, footrests and lower back support.
The length of time at a job is shorter now. For example van Wiley mentions long term effects need to be studied for long periods. So he suggested a particular group of workers should be studied for ten years. Jobs now last for much shorter periods of time. But van Wiley (1970, 263) did say that studying the same group of workers over a ten year period is impractical. He also mentioned the frequency for changing designs of products and production methods is unlikely to last for ten years.
The recommendations for using as many steps possible to observe one problem is the closest way to find a reliable result because objective measurements are not available. Although historically companies and factories have put a premium on production process efficiency, workers’ health is more appreciated now. The health of the worker reflects on high production rates and also on costs such as medical insurance for a company. Absenteeism is a good example of a costly problem because work is not accomplished when absenteeism is high. This causes missed deadlines which can lead quickly to loss of customers. Contemporary companies that want to be successful need to appreciate the impact of healthy versus ill workers and the effect on their profits. (293 words)
van Wely, P. Design and Disease. Applied Ergonomics, 1.5: 262-269. 1970.