From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Garment Workers Find Relief in Grass-Roots Ergonomics

Front-line workers in California’s garment factories may soon be able to sit more comfortably thanks to their own hard work at getting ergonomics incorporated into their workplaces, and a $25,000 economic-development grant from the City of Oakland.

According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, garment workers like Kwei Fong Lin formerly spent their work days hunched over sewing machines, sitting on folding chairs, stools or crates, supporting heavy lengths of fabric while they sewed. “We just took the pain as it came,” Lin told the Times.

“They hurt all the time,” Nan Lashuay, an assistant professor at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) School of Nursing, reiterated. And, while organizations like the Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA) had existed for nearly 20 years specifically to improve working conditions for the garment workers, ergonomics had never been a part of their agenda.

So the main push for ergonomics in Oakland’s garment factories had to come from elsewhere and ultimately it was the teenage daughters of the workers who took the lead. They were tired of seeing their seamstress mothers return home from work sore, achy and fatigued on a nightly basis. They knew something had to be done. And with the help of medical professionals, ergonomics experts, product designers, state health officials and the workers themselves, the group developed a plan to improve the workplaces.

Lashuay, who helped train the workers, noted that at the start of the program, no one really knew how widespread the work-related injuries were for the garment workers. To find out, UCSF opened a clinic while the teenage girls encouraged the workers to come in for testing and treatment. Of the first 100 workers to visit the clinic, 99 had at least one work-related condition. According to the Times report, almost half of the group had back pain or strain, one-third had neck strain, one-quarter had shoulder pain or strain, and another nine percent had knee pain. But only seven of the 100 had filed worker’s compensation claims for their injuries, and four of those lost their jobs because of their claims.

“It was a learning process for the garment workers to identify that pain wasn’t normal,” Lashuay told the Times. “‘You work, you use up your body.’ I heard that statement so many times,” she said.

While it was apparent that factories were in dire need of an ergonomics upheaval, the problem remained that very little, if any, ergonomic equipment was available for the garment industry. So, with the help of University of California ergonomics consultant Ira Janowitz, and Carl Zdenek, a former architect and founder of Soma Ergonomics, the team set out to create equipment that would relieve some of the workers’ conditions while also working within the budgets and the cramped workspaces of the garment factories.

Chairs were created to complement the posture of the workers, footrests were designed to be made by factory owners for about five dollars a piece, and a sewing table was developed that could raise and lower heavy fabrics to help alleviate shoulder pain.

Ultimately, the implemented improvements have been a boon to the workers