As winter descends upon the northern hemisphere, it reminds us of the effects of temperature on human performance. We all know temperature can impair human abilities, but under what conditions, and by how much? In this study, Taiwan based researchers Chen, Shih, and Chi explore the relationship between hand/finger dexterity and the factors of skin temperature, surface electromyography (EMG), and ambient condition.
They first review related research, noting that others have already demonstrated that exposure to cold can:
In their discussion, they cite the work of other cold temperature research in more detail, and readers who have a deeper interest in this topic are encouraged to review the original article, cited below. I’ve also included, below, more detail on how the study was conducted (Methods) and a listing of key findings (Primary Findings).
The Bottom Line
There are indoor jobs, meat packing and other cold storage environments, for example, that necessarily expose workers to cold temperatures. There are also plenty of jobs that occur outdoors during cold temperatures, so it’s nice to have some evidence that can help ergonomists establish the effect of cold on hand dexterity. We know that cold hands impair hand function, but this research gives us some specific, actionable data that characterizes that performance decrement.
After a lot of digging through this study, one important finding (and there are more — see the Primary Findings, below) is that skin temperature was the most consistent and best predictor for dexterity performance, accounting for 48-49% of performance statistical variation. It’s not surprising that lower skin temperatures were associated with poorer performance, but studies like this give ergonomists and designers some specifics that may help when convincing others. Being able to cite evidence that realistic cold conditions in this study can be powerful (for example, ambient temperatures of 11 degrees C (52 degrees F) resulted in a 52-55% reduction in dexterity performance).
Knowing that cold temperatures affect performance is one thing, but finding solutions that improve such performance decrements is another. We have few options, and using gloves to keep the hands warm is one of the easiest and most prevalent. But, gloves can also create significant performance decrements, especially for gripping tasks.
Can you think of any other practical solutions that might preserve or enhance hand/finger dexterity in cold environments?
Gross Dexterity (nut loosening task):
Fine Dexterity (pin insertion task):
Note: This study also contains results regarding EMG measurements, which are of interest primarily to researchers, and are not discussed herein. Interested readers are encouraged to review the original article, cited below, for more details.
Like all studies, this one has significant limitations. For example, we cannot use this data to predict performance degradations over a spectrum of temperatures; these results apply to the specifics of these experimental conditions. Also, for example, the participants in this study were primarily younger, and there may be significant age effects that are therefore not revealed.
Chen, Wen-Lin; Shih, Yuh-Chuan; Chi, Chia-Fen, Hand and Finger Dexterity as a Function of Skin Temperature, EMG, and Ambient Condition, Human Factors, Volume 52, Number 3, June 2010 , pp. 426-440(15), Retrieved from http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/hfes/hf/2010/00000052/00000003/art00005 on December 6, 2010.
This article is an updated version of “The Effect of Cold Temperatures on Hand/Finger Dexterity,” which originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report on December 6, 2010. Used by permission.