Anthropometry – the study of body size and shape — is a primary consideration in occupational ergonomics. For instance, if you want to select a table height for a particular job, you need to consider such things as what task the people will perform at this table, where their eye height is so they can see their work, where their elbows are relative to the table, or how far they need to reach to access the stapler. Ergonomists call these general measurements functional anthropometry.
Good product designers also need anthropometry data, but they often need much more detailed information, or information about one specific part of the body. Designing a helmet for a military pilot using eye-tracking technology to aim weapons, for example, calls for very good fit, and very detailed anthropometry measurements.
Designing a system that can precisely locate a cancerous point in the female breast is another example. Daniel R. Baker, Ph.D., CPE, president of Kinetic Research and Design in Seattle, Washington, recently gathered data on female breast anthropometry (size, shape, and volume) for two different companies designing such systems.
One company sought the data for use in designing a proprietary medical breast-imaging device that will be used to non-invasively search for breast cancer. The other company needed the data to design a proprietary electronic locating system intended for use by breast cancer surgeons in an operating room. Operating rooms are usually not equipped with the same kind of sophisticated imaging systems that a clinical setting has. The new system is designed to pinpoint the location of a marker that is implanted during a previous tissue biopsy, thus giving the surgeon precise location information without the need for a sophisticated imaging system.
Field studies, meaning the data would be collected by measuring enough samples of the female population to develop a statistically valid data set, were not an option due to the cost and time it would take to conduct such experimentation. Baker therefore needed to research existing data to compile his numbers.
He turned to the large body of knowledge that exists in the fields of ergonomics and human factors engineering, including reference texts, handbooks, and publicly available NASA and US Air Force anthropometry databases, but was unable to locate the data at the level of detail he needed. His work became a bit of a detective story at that point, and he began to look to other commercial entities that would have an interest in female breast anthropometry, including makers of clothing, undergarments, and wearable equipment.
Bra manufacturers turned out to be one source through which Baker found pieces of the data, although the sizing methods that they use are not directly transferable to the more precise measurements he needed.
He then turned to published articles in medical and biomechanics journals. There he found additional data through which he could develop his data set, including literature from cosmetic and reconstruction breast implant surgeons, breast cancer surgeons, and biomedical engineers designing breast implants.
Piecing together and analyzing all the different data and measurement methods, Baker was able to identify comparable data that could be used to calculate anthropometry distributions that his medical device clients were able to apply in their designs.
We often think of ergonomics as an occupational issue, but it is really much, much more, and is applied in many designs, well beyond the workplace. Applied anthropometry and ergonomics won’t just save your company money by reducing musculoskeletal injuries and increasing productivity and quality. It may well save your life, or the life of a loved one.