From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Ergonomics Roundup: January 20, 2010

Thanks for all the positive feedback regarding our first “Ergonomics Roundup” article, published last week. We’ll continue to do these articles that summarize recent ergonomics topics gathered from various media sources. If you have any suggestions, please add them as a comment to this article, or email them to


Equipois Gets $1.25M In Funding
I’ve been impressed with Equipois and their zeroG product line since I saw the initial concept. And it’s promising to see a company that specializes in ergonomic devices is perceived by venture capital investors as a worthy investment.

Los Angeles-based Equipois, a developer of devices for providing better ergonomics, is closing on $1.25M in a Series B-1 funding round this week, the firm told socalTECH today. The new round is being led by Penny Black. Equipois develops mechanical devices to make objects weightless, which are used by manufacturers and others to reduce workplace injuries and improve efficiency. The round is planned for up to $3.0M, and so far comes from existing investors.


Indian origin scientist gets Canada’s highest civilian award
I worked with Shrawan Kumar at the University of Michigan’s Center for Ergonomics in the early- to mid-1980’s. I was a graduate student and he was doing a research stint at the time. He went on to become an important contributor to the body of ergonomics research, and I was pleased to see him honored with this award:

An Allahabad-born scientist of Indian origin has been given Canada’s highest civilian award – the Order of Canada.
Shrawan Kumar was honoured on Thursday for his three decades of pioneering research on workplace injury and the spine at the University of Alberta.

Kumar is among 57 prominent Canadians who have been given the nation’s highest civilian award for their excellence in various fields.

Read the full article …




Terrorist Explosives May Be Detected by an Electronic ‘Nose’
By Patrick Donahue

Ergoweb has written a number of articles about the critical role of ergonomics and human factors in the success of security screening at airports, and I noticed that this technology is tied to a company involved with ergonomoics, the Fraunhofer Institute for Communication, Information Processing and Ergonomics, in Wachtberg, Germany.


German scientists say they have developed a system to sniff out assailants carrying bomb materials with an electronic “nose,” the latest technological effort to stave off terrorist attacks.

Known as Hazardous Material Localization and Person Tracking, or HAMLeT, the system relies on scent and motion.

The electronic-sniffer system is still in the experimental stage and a pilot project could be three years away, Koch said.
“Sniffing” explosives with sensors isn’t enough to identify a bombing suspect, so HAMLeT deploys laser scanners or video sensors to monitor movement. The combined information, or “sensory data fusion,” is integrated using algorithms to pinpoint a suspect in a confined space, such as a hallway.

Read the full article …


US scientists have found a way they believe may cut the number of mistakes made by medical staff looking for breast and cervical cancers. The research could also translate to other searching tasks, including baggage security inspections at airports.

The authors promote a daily pre-work “booster exercise” that will help screeners visualize what they’re looking for and improve search success. Excerpts from the article:

Writing in the journal Current Biology, the researchers say that people in all walks of life looking for rare events often miss them. But accuracy improves if people first get used to looking at samples of what they need to find.

The study found that the amount of time the observers spent looking for something depended on how often if appeared.

"If you don’t find it often, you often don’t find it," said lead author, Jeremy Wolfe of Harvard Medical School.

"If you are trying to find 20 cases of breast cancer from 40 mammograms, you’ll find more of them than if you look for the same 20 cases from 2,000 mammograms.

"From an evolutionary point of view it makes sense for people to give up searching more quickly if they don’t expect to find what they were looking for," he said.

"If you know berries are there, you keep looking until you find them. If they are never there, you don’t spend your time hunting."
But this causes difficulties when the aim is to accurately spot rare phenomenon like cancers or bombs in travellers’ luggage.

Read the full article …


Tracking The Flu: Engineers and Computer Scientists Predict the Spread of a Flu Pandemic with New Tool

The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society contributed to this topic:

Engineers and computer scientists designed a tool to track the spread of a flu pandemic, comparing scenarios with and without the influence of antiviral drugs and social distancing measures. The tool uses data from the 1918 flu pandemic to simulate the daily spread over a two-month period across an entire state. The simulation demonstrates how specific measures would affect the availability of hospital beds, the percentage of people who contract the flu and number of deaths.

Read the full article …


A Sneak Preview of FDA’s Human Factors Standard

HE 75 is the result of 20 years worth of effort to create best practices guidance in medical device ergonomics and human factors engineering. Patricia A. Patterson and Robert A. North have prepared an extensive review of the new design standard. Whether or not you’re interested in medical devices, this standard could be an excellent resource for any human centered / ergonomic product design process.

Excerpts from the article:

HE 75, “Human Factors Engineering—Design of Medical Devices,” is expected to be recognized as an industry best practice by FDA. This nearly 500-page document provides detailed human factors engineering (HFE) design guidance, examples, checklists, and case studies.

The regulation now includes CFR 820.30, Design Controls—a process for ensuring that a design ultimately would meet the needs of the end-user.

… more than one third of medical device incident reports involve use error, and more than one half of the recalls due to design problems can be traced to the design of the user interface.

Although primarily a design principle handbook, HE 75 does include two process-oriented sections. One section, called Use Error Risk Management, discusses the process of discovering potential use errors, along with recommendations of methods and steps for managing their risk.

FDA expects device manufacturers to do the following: 

  • Treat use error as a risk to be understood and controlled.
  • Identify and understand foreseeable use error risk.
  • Assess the clinical severity of use errors.
  • Control or mitigate use error risk in design.
  • Validate risk mitigation effectiveness through testing with users.
  • Document risk management efforts.
  • Monitor use errors after device is in use.

Although HE 75’s page count may seem overwhelming, it is not designed to be read and followed cover to cover.

HE 75 is a set of design principles rather than a pure process standard that must be followed every step of the way. The greater the complexity of the design, the more HFE work will be required, he says.

The term user error is no longer used officially in favor of the less blameful use error, but even the term use error may be a misnomer. Failure to use a medical device correctly is not always about human fallibility. It is about the device not fully supporting a certain percentage of the user’s sensory, cognitive, and physical requirements at a given moment in time. The manufacturer has several options: eliminate the task, redesign the user-device interaction, improve the labeling and documentation, or redesign the training to call attention to difficult and error-prone tasks.

Read the full article …



Reinventing the Heel
by Sally Dominguez

This caught my eye for a couple of reasons. First, we’ve published several articles about the lack of ergonomics in high heeled footwear. Second, I was once a passenger in a car in which footwear nearly caused a horrendous accident (the driver had removed her “clog” style shoes while driving, one of which ended up under the brake pedal, prohibiting her from depressing the pedal as we careened toward stopped traffic ahead — we ended up in the ditch, avoiding a high speed rear-end collision). Plus, the author references ergonomics research — good for her!

Finally car makers are taking a walk in someone else’s shoes and moving towards more footwear-friendly pedals.
My attention was drawn to the subject again recently with Toyota’s overseas recall of 4 million vehicles over concerns that floor mats in them could come unstuck and interfere with the functioning of the accelerator pedal.

I wondered how many other accidents and near-misses had been caused by unpredictable footwear, be it thongs bending under the brake pedal, mules snagging the clutch or Crocs coming off completely. Unfortunately, accident reports don’t usually provide details of the footwear of drivers involved in a crash.

Of course, any conversation regarding appropriate driving footwear inevitably comes to the issue of driving in heels and whether it’s dangerous.
It’s not illegal and apparently one in four women do it. Yet most people regard it as unsafe and no vehicle directly addresses the very different mechanical action of an angled foot and elevated ankle on the pedal.

The International Encyclopedia of Ergonomics and Human Factors suggests an accelerator pedal be angled between 35 degrees and 45 degrees to control the force exerted from the driver. The force on the pedal is also controlled by the angle of thrust. The encyclopedia notes pressure feedback from the foot "can be largely masked by footwear".

The author goes on to discuss solutions to the shoe-pedal problem.

Read the full article …


There are a lot of Sad Civil Servants in Canada
By Kathryn May

According to this article,

Stress, burnout and depression is evident in all workplaces, especially in times of economic turmoil. But few employers have as profound a problem as the federal public service where the health effects of mental distress has been termed an epidemic.

You’ll see that some readers aren’t feeling sorry for the government workers if you read the comments at the end of the article, but what caught my eye was this statement in the article:

“The public service is a tsunami of distractions — meetings, everything questioned, delegated, people moving … and no one is really in charge,” said Wilkerson. “It’s the most transient, fluid, unsettling work environment on the planet, so why wouldn’t people be anxious and in distress? They are human beings.”

It got me thinking about macroergonomics and the ergonomics of organizational design and management. What features make for a good working life, whether it be public or private sector? For example, autonomy, control, clearly defined expectations and goals. These are things that can be lacking in any workplace, but are they perhaps more likely to be absent in public sector work? Is it even possible for a government that is subject to constant public scrutiny, which can and should be the case in democracies, to manage a workforce well? Does the nature of the beast overrule good management practice?

More excerpts:

In the public service, mental health claims doubled between 1991 and 2007 and now account for 45 per cent of all claims. Meanwhile, the number of other health claims has dropped.

Studies of federal executives found three quarters felt on the verge of burnout or extreme fatigue. More startling was that 15 per cent of the top executives and one in four entry-level executives who felt “verbally harassed and tormented.” Executives in the private sector typically feel less stress because they have more control.

Wilkerson argues an inertia and paralysis have gripped the public service that’s compounded by an “ambiguity” around who is in charge. Such an environment takes its toll on people, many whom leave work every day frustrated and feeling they have accomplished nothing.

Read the full article …

Sources:, Ottowa Citizen

Workplace injuries are common in northwestern Pennsylvania

This article caught my eye primarily because of the comments supplied by Kathryne Buege, D.O., a hospital based physician. The story begins with:

Pete Schuster was lifting the end of a 3,000-pound dolly when searing pain erupted in his lower back.

The pain was so intense that Schuster, a road driver for FedEx, couldn’t walk the few hundred feet from the company’s yard to its Freight Division building in downtown Erie.

"I was eight feet from my tractor and it took me 15, 20 minutes to crawl into it and call my supervisor for help," Schuster said. "He was able to help me get back into the building."

Buege’s comment:

"I’d say 80 percent of what we see are back injuries," Buege said. "The cause is often a failure to follow proper safety techniques."

I’m curious what “proper safety technique” would have reduced the hazards related to “lifting the end of a 3,000-pound dolly”?

Schuster said he was using proper form when he tried to lift the end of the dolly to the back of a truck.

"I lifted with my knees like they teach in the (FedEx training) videos," Schuster said. "I don’t know if it was the cold weather or what."

Another physician is quoted:

"We are seeing more of these types of injuries in the upper extremities: wrists, shoulders and elbows," said Paul Dill, a Saint Vincent occupational health nurse practitioner. "Part of it is that people are working longer hours, and are being pushed further to do more with less."

Buege’s comments:

It’s also due to improper body mechanics, Buege said.

This is a subject on which ergonomists and healthcare professionals often seem to differ. An ergonomist will likely argue that the body mechanics exhibited by a worker are driven by, and a result of, the physical design and layout of the work equipment and process. Furthermore, all the attention to body mechanics in the world won’t reduce the forces (and other potential risk factors) required by the job. The most effective and reliable way to reduce risks is through design, not through behavioral controls.

"I just want to get better," Schuster said. "I can’t even play with my kids in the snow. I’m stuck on the couch."

Read the full article …


New Group Raising Awareness of Distracted Driving

Distracted driving is a re-occurring theme on Ergoweb as more and more people attempt to drive — and do crash — while operating communication devices.

FocusDriven is a nonprofit organization created by the National Safety Council and supported by both DOT and Vernon F. Betkey Jr., chairman of the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Learn more …



[Rumor:] Apple To Release Touch-Enabled 22-inch IMac This Year
Technology blogs are buzzing with rumors of new Apple technology, and many are questioning the ergonomics of emerging touch / gesturing input schemes. The topic also reminded me of a discussion occurring in the Ergoweb Forums regarding futuristic touch / gesturing technology in the movie Avatar:

For example, “Eric” writes:

What’s also interesting about this unofficial announcement of sorts is the ergonomics of the entire idea. We can’t speak for everybody, but picturing ourselves consistently reaching over to the screen of an iMac for touch input would quickly become tiring for the arms, not to mention downright annoying.

Read the full post …

In another example Michael W. Jones writes:

As devices like the iPhone and iTablet proliferate, it will become less expensive to produce things with these handy screens. With what may have been prescience, Steve Jobs said several years ago in a conversation about touchscreens with Bill Gates, “This general purpose device is going to continue to be with us and morph with us, whether it’s a tablet or a notebook or, you know, a big curved desktop that you have at your house or whatever it might be.”

There has been much written about the dubious ergonomics of such a device. One has only to imagine himself constantly reaching out a couple of feet in front of his face to see how heavy his arms would become if the device were used a great deal. Still, the touchscreen offers users a much more direct experience than a mouse, and some actions, like dragging, are much more natural with a finger than a mouse … It is possible that touchscreen gestures, in combination with a keyboard or voice recognition, could be the input devices of the immediate future, with the mouse dropping by the wayside.

Read the full post …

Reclined Computing With Your Laptop
Last week I pointed to a commercial research study that looked at “the most comfortable position to use a netbook” among “tweens”. The study found that the tweens preferred “lying in bed with the computer propped up on one’s thighs with knees kept up.” This finding brings up many questions for ergonomists. In the mean time, for better or for worse, others have picked up on this theme and are promoting the lying down computing posture.

For example, Charles Moore writes:

Laptops are great; I’m an uber-fan and have been almost exclusively a laptop user since 1996, but for the long hours of production work that many web workers like myself do, conventional laptop ergonomics are a horror, and can lead to a variety of painful or even debilitating conditions over time.

There are two effective conventional ways to address this issue. You can place the computer on a laptop stand of some sort that elevates the display to a comfortable viewing plane that doesn’t involve tilting your head forward, and connecting an external keyboard and mouse for input. Alternatively, you can use an external monitor.

A less conventional solution, which I’ve been working with successfully for a while now, is to use one of several devices that facilitate computing in a reclined posture … I’m going to discuss these devices in this post.

Read the full article …




Blackbird Premiers First Ever Carbon-fiber Ukulele at 2010 NAMM Show

We’ve all seen the use — and more often the misuse — of the label “ergonomics” on consumer products. I ignore most product related mentions of ergonomics in my searches, but this one caught my eye because I’m a wanna be musician (I own, but never mastered, a ukulele). I haven’t seen this model, so can’t comment on its ergonomics, other than what I see here.

While carbon fiber is more acoustically efficient than wood, it is also much stronger and resistant to humidity. "We made our name initially with the Rider travel guitars and in some sense the ukulele is the ultimate travel instrument. So as amusing as a composite ukulele may be, we wanted players to have a professional-grade instrument without ever having to worry about it," says Blackbird founder Joe Luttwak. The highly sculpted form is accented by a beautiful weave with a high gloss finish that undulates around various body cutaways for improved ergonomics and ultralight weight.

For more information …


Ergonomics of Handguns
I often see references to the ergonomics of hand gun design. I don’t have much experience with handguns, but here’s the kind of talk, from “AJ” in this case, that I see when scanning blogs for mentions of “ergonomics”:

I have never been a Glock fan, and though the Glock has the best trigger of the group, it has the worst ergonomics and just doesn’t work for me. The XD and M&P are both very nice. I have more experience with the .45 version of each as that is my true caliber of choice, but both are good shooting and ergonomic as heck. It probably at that point comes down to which you like best.

Read the full post …