Australian ergonomics: are we lagging behind the rest of the world?

by Tiffany Paczek
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There are significant differences between Australia and other developed countries when it comes to the way the field of ergonomics is approached and utilised. We have some catching up to do, reports KIRSTY ANGERER.

Workplace design and practices in Australia have evolved rapidly over the last decade or so. Businesses have taken note of trends in the creation of innovative workplaces when it comes to considerations such as aesthetics, functionality and, certainly, technology. Perhaps led by start-ups aware of the strides made in these areas by such global successes as Google and Apple, companies are now much more likely to feature people-friendly workplaces, with breakout zones, flexible design and activity-based working.

It’s no longer a surprise to visit a graphic design studio or tech start-up in the inner Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy, for example, and see a foosball table in the corner or a series of hot desks that can be utilised by various staff members according to need.

Wellness programs too are increasingly being taken into account, with serviced offices more likely to offer gyms, Pilates classes and end-of-trip facilities for cyclists and walkers, as inducements to potential tenants.

But at the same time, there is one area that is still not at the forefront of current workplace design thinking.

Historically, ergonomics in this country has been considered a health and safety issue and there are fewer ergonomists working in Australia than in the rest of the developed world. On the other hand, overseas and, it should be said, in some forward-thinking pockets in Australia, the field is now being looked at from a business strategy perspective.

Look abroad

One of the reasons that the UK, for example, is ahead of Australia in this regard is due to regulations. In the UK there are DSE (display screen equipment) regulations in place that stipulate anyone working with a computer for more than two hours per day has to be assessed. This level of monitoring likely correlates with some extremely progressive architectural developments in this space. In London, the new Sky World building is a standout example, having created a set of specific environments from which people can choose to work depending on the task at hand.

The US is also ahead of Australia. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA), which dates back to President Richard Nixon’s administration, operates out of Washington DC under the US Department of Labor, but regulations may have less influence on practice than the prevalent litigation culture in the country. To avoid workplace compensation claims, developing robust ergonomic programs and choosing the right tools to work with has become a major incentive.

Why care?

There are three overwhelming areas in which the benefits of the discipline can have a significant effect on your business. Ergonomics:

  • can bring down costs – by reducing the onset of musculoskeletal disorders and injuries, businesses will see fewer workers’ compensation claims and staff absences due to ill health, leading directly to a healthier bottom line
  • improves productivity – when staff are comfortable at their workstations and less fatigued, they will do their work better and more efficiently, and
  • helps businesses to retain and attract talent – today’s graduates and job seekers are more aware of what they are looking
    for when joining a business, and being comfortable and having good desks, chairs and work tools is of increasing importance to new hires.

Consultancy

Once a business or organisation has understood the importance and benefits of good ergonomic practice, the next step is getting the right advice. The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society of Australia (HFESA) is an excellent first port of call, as by using its recommendations businesses can be confident that they are hiring a certified professional ergonomist. Humanscale has a global team of in-house ergonomists, with an associate ergonomist based in Australia, who regularly travels to each state and is available for consultation.

Take care

It must be noted that not all products that are labelled as ergonomic actually do the job they promise. It’s imperative that you do your research, as the term itself isn’t governed. Some supposedly ergonomic products are in fact very bad for you and can cause discomfort. One example is the mouse wrist rest, which doubles intra carpal tunnel pressure and minimises blood circulation around the arm.

At the same time, the design of the human body hasn’t changed drastically in quite some time. What has changed is the technology we use and the environments in which we work.

As long as people are careful to choose products that encourage neutral postures, then they are on the right track.

Possible ramifications

The message is clear: ignore ergonomics at your peril. Possible negative outcomes of ignoring the most up-to-date thinking in the field include:

  • a workforce that is suffering with discomfort or injuries, which can be a very costly affair – from direct costs or workers’ compensation claims to indirect costs of training someone new while also paying for the injured person
  • an unhappy workforce – if people don’t feel as if they are being looked after, productivity is more than likely to reduce, and
  • the loss of talented staff members, which can put strain on a business.

Future

Having seen the advances overseas and hopeful signs closer to home, we can be confident that the situation in Australia is changing. Recently, I’ve been working with interior design firms, which is a huge shift from as recently as five years ago. If designers and architects are considering ergonomics more, this is a positive development. The availability of standards such as WELL, Fitwel and Green Star will also help drive ergonomics forward in Australia. More ‘real life’ research is important too, to show the world the benefits of ergonomics.

Kirsty Angerer is an associate ergonomist with Humanscale (Australia and New Zealand).

This article also appears in the February/March issue of Facility Management magazine.

Image: Andriy Popov © 123RF.com

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