From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Where’s Ergonomics Going? Nowhere if Things Don’t Change!

Right now the term Ergonomics [and those practicing the science of Ergonomics, known as Ergonomists (real Ergonomists)] is generally publicly recognized as principles that (or people who) tell you what kind of chair to sit in, or those who sell furniture touted as being ergonomic, or do what everyone knows as or assumes is office ergonomics.  Right then and there the public’s knowledge of ergonomics maxes out.

Most often when I tell someone I’m an Ergonomist, people shuffle their posture and I get the usual, "OH, am I sitting ergonomically correct, or am I holding this coffee cup ergonomically correct, or is this (fill in the blank) pencil, paper clip, dollar bill ergonomically designed?”  Yeah – thanks a lot Dude, like I haven’t heard that a million times before.  A lot of my professional colleagues (who have spent a lot of time in education, professional activities, professional societies and YEARS in the trenches perfecting their craft to become certified) bristle at this kind of faint glimmer of acceptance from the populace as a general whole. 

At the same time, it also rankles us that the term ergonomically correct or ergonomically designed is used without limitations, without a sense of reality, without meaningful thought behind its application to objects, and most of all without any real meaning.  In my ergo "museum", I have all kinds of stupid "ergonomically designed" objects, from jock straps to toilet seats.  In fact, I have cash rewards to my college age daughters for uncovering such "voodoo ergonomic" objects.  Recently I received an ergonomic diaper ad from my friend Julia.  It seems the world is full of this kind of outright fraud, lies and snake oil, and yet the deception continues.  If we as professional ergonomists are not careful, this could be a major player in our downfall.  The marketing profession is quickly eroding our professional integrity in its attempt to sell or produce products that have no real ergonomic or social application, or any real design thought or methodology behind them.  By association Ergonomists, whether credentialed or not, are being swept along with this wave of falsehood and are being charged as guilty – again, simply by association.  The message is no longer subtle.  It is quickly being placed into the mainstream thought pattern that ergonomics is trivial, not really a valid and scientific concept.  In short, marketing is taking away our professional credibility.

There is a small group of us that have had plenty of lattes and discussed this at length, late into the night.  We have come to the conclusion that the time is quickly approaching as a "do or die" effort to save the field of ergonomics from this path of moving into obscurity… simply because no one in the general populace thinks or knows what ergonomics truly is what it means or what the real benefits are to individual and organzational performance, injury prevention, risk mitigation, return to work or occupational rehabilitation.  If no one believes in ergonomics or what it can truly stand for, there will be no demand for ergonomics, save for that on the most simplistic level.

We in the field of Ergonomics need to do something folks!  We need to take some sort of action if we as a profession are serious about this.  Without doing anything proactive, we will relegate ourselves to second fiddle, being tossed about by the whims of well funded marketing campaigns, false labeling and misleading stickers attaching the term “ergonomic” to everything from coffee cups to UPS (uninterruptible power sources) to potato chips.  Do we really want that to happen?

So what do we do?

Well, here’s what we’ve been thinking, and I make this a call to action for y’all.  We believe a group should come together and form some sort of association to take this thing head on.  YES, head on.  It involves standards.  No I’m not talking about the OSHA standard that was put together by the Clinton administration and then subsequently quashed by Bush II, or the recent threat of standards that has once again surfaced from OSHA.  These in my view tend to be political endeavors and discourse involving labor and government, an area of debate which I feel ergonomics should be best left out of. 

NO, I’m talking simply about hardware – the design of products.  Things you can feel, touch, use, manipulate, all as a part of some sort of task performance.  You know, keyboards, mice, pliers, steering wheels, medical devices, clothes, pens, sports equipment, gardening tools, industrial equipment, and yes – even chairs – and a gazillion other things ergonomists have the power to change for the better.  Real ergonomists should have the wherewithal to impact the design of said items, not just simply recommending an existing "ergonomic” chair or keyboard tray.

To really develop such a set of rational criteria for these 3 dimensional "things" a group who strongly believes in this must come together to establish such criteria.  The group should include ergonomists, but most importantly also include equipment manufacturers, some folk from academia, some theorists and okay, possibly a few from government.  The whole point is to include aspects of all interested parties, especially from equipment manufacturers, for those who would truly believe in this concept know that their products would benefit, and those who have charlatan products naturally would shun or even combat such an endeavor. 

For this whole concept to work, we need to have all professional groups work together.  This group would NOT supplant or even hint at competing with groups like HFES or BCPE.  Both of these groups have performed pioneering work in helping establish Ergonomics as a profession to be taken seriously.  We need both of these groups and their collective brain trust to help incubate this concept. 

There are a few professionals who feel strongly about this and this is what we have been thinking.  We need this effort to move, and move forward into the forefront, folks.  Someone has to do something.  The thought process has been around for a while.  This constructive attitude appears prevalent among the profession.  The desire appears present, even if it is not yet coalesced.  The next step is to establish a means to help protect the public and the profession from lies, deception and outright falsehood regarding function, design and performance of products. 

So, I guess, I’m making an open call.  Anyone willing to jump in and help change the profession for the better?

I’m in.  Are you?  Let me know.

Ian Chong, a Certified Professional Ergonomist with Seattle based multi-disciplinary Extreme Ergonomics Inc., designs and prototypes unique tools, equipment and workstations addressing occupational injuries in all occupational environments, industrial and office on a national level.  Ian holds advanced degrees in Ergonomics & Occupational Biomechanics, Industrial Design; and Architectural Engineering, and is also profiled in the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.