Why facilities managers should care about ergonomics

by FM Media
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Why should facilities managers care about ergonomics? Facility Management explores the subject and consults a number of experts in the field in an effort to answer this question.

“The word ‘ergonomics’ tends to conjure up images of typists sitting at screens, covered with dotted lines and overlaid with a set of rules – ‘how to sit properly’. But, the truth is far different,” says Mark Dohrmann, owner of Mark Dohrmann and Partners, a specialist consultancy in occupational and public health and safety, specialising in ergonomics.
He states that ergonomics – the science of carefully fitting workplaces and products to humans – is a rich source of information that can guide managers, architects and planners in enhancing the comfort, safety and utility of any facility. “Ergonomics principles set out the true capabilities and limits of people’s senses, size differences and strength. Ergonomics is readily applied to choosing better furniture, to space planning, improved layout, better lighting, the management of noise, the movement of people, and amenity generally. The aim of ergonomics is to increase safety, convenience and well-being for all.”
Dohrmann notes that ergonomics deals with the science of how human beings see, hear, move, understand and react with their built and work environment. “Ergonomics can also be defined as ‘user friendly’, or even ‘idiot proof’,” he adds. According to him, it delivers usable information on:

  • vision (signage, colours and positioning)
  • furniture (size, padding and adjustments)
  • floors (friction, warmth, noise and cleanability)
  • spaces (crowd movement, security and handling)
  • storage
  • handling, and
  • air climate.

Peter Stacey, country manager of Australia and New Zealand for Humanscale, whose products are distributed by Schiavello, notes that organisations are increasingly putting a lot of focus on the environmental impact of their buildings, and rightly so; however, the people element that makes up the workplace is often overlooked. “When it comes to good ergonomic design within the office environment, there are obvious benefits, including improved comfort and productivity of the users and a reduction in injury risks,” he states. “Good ergonomics impacts the bottom line.”
He quotes one of the world’s leading ergonomists, Professor Alan Hedge, director of the Cornell University Human Factors and Ergonomics Research Group, who visited Australia in March 2011 to take part in the Green Ergonomics forum hosted by Schiavello: “If you could change the productivity of people in a building by just 1 percent, that would be the equivalent of all the energy costs over the lifetime of that building.”

Dr Jodi Oakman, a senior lecturer at the Centre for Ergonomics and Human Factors at La Trobe University, states that ergonomics concerns the match between individuals and their tasks, and that getting this match right – whether it be the physical environment or broader organisational factors – is critical in ensuring the overall health and well-being of workers. According to Oakman, facilities managers should care about ergonomics because it assists in maximising productivity, and getting the employee and job match right is part of that equation.
“Employees have capacities. Ergonomics helps to make sure that work is designed so that employees are working within these capacities. This helps to reduce stress and fatigue, both precursors to injury and adversely impacting health and well-being,” Oakman says. “Ergonomists contribute to the design of systems to assist with enhancing performance. This is done at several different levels – physical, cognitive and organisational.”
She notes that, using a systems approach, ergonomists examine all aspects of work so that they can ensure there is a good match between workers and their jobs. “Ergonomists contribute to the planning, design and evaluation of tasks, jobs, products, organisations, environments and systems to make them compatible with the needs, abilities and limitations of people.”
Oakman states that improvements in job match are likely to reduce injury rates, and that reducing injuries results in decreases to compensation costs and all of the associated costs with injuries, such as replacement, retraining and loss of productivity.
Ergonomics is more than just considering the physical environment, she says; it is about looking at the task, the job and the organisation in which an employee works. She states that ensuring that line managers and supervisors are trained to recognise what ergonomics is and when they will need to call an ergonomist to assist is an important part of the process.
“We are all familiar with the fact that physical hazards, that is heavy lifting, work that involves repetition, pushing, pulling etc, can lead to physical injury. What is less well understood, despite there being plenty of research evidence, is the link between psychosocial factors – for example, supervisor support, job control and team environment – and the development of musculoskeletal injuries,” Oakman notes. “These are not in people’s heads – they are physical injuries. Getting the facility right is important, but getting all of these other factors right is equally as important, but more often forgotten.”

Some examples of where ergonomics data is commonly and usefully applied to the development and management of facilities include lighting, the prevention of slips and falls, seating and furniture, and glazing.

1. Lighting
Concerning lighting, Dohrmann states that it needs to be balanced against the way humans see and detect information to ensure suitably well-lit and restful environments for people who work, wait or talk in built spaces.
“Lighting is not just about delivering ‘enough’ light; it is the lighting quality that counts. This means the active management of reflections, relative glare, effective curtaining, sunlight management and informed colour choices,” he notes.
According to Stacey, most office environments are drastically over-lit from an ambient perspective, creating energy waste; however, they are under-lit from a task perspective. “A dimly lit setting works well for viewing monitors, as they emit light, while more light is required for viewing paper documents, as they reflect light,” he states. “The use of controllable task lighting overcomes this issue and enables ambient light levels to be lowered, resulting in a reduction in the energy requirements for lighting.”
He notes that a study conducted in 2006 in Helsinki – ‘The influence of controllable task-lighting on productivity: a field study in a factory’ (Henri Juslén, Marius Wouters and Ariadne Tenner) – found that the increase of productivity for the test group was 4.5 percent compared to a reference group. The mechanism for this increase can be improved visual performance, biological effects of light or psychological effects, Stacey notes.
He adds that task lights are now available with energy-saving LED technology that provides the same performance as fluorescent and incandescent technologies, and that the invention of single source LEDs has eliminated the issue of multiple shadows, which tend to stress the eye, instead of make it easier to read.

2. The prevention of slips and falls
When it comes to the prevention of slips and falls, Dohrmann states that ergonomics data about people’s size and movement patterns assists the design and spacing of aisleways, the positioning of critical signs and in choosing colour combinations that are most likely to be seen and understood.
“Slips and falls can be a nightmare in facilities where pedestrian surfaces become dangerous when wet. The selection of mats, the treatment of tiles, the design of staircases and emergency exits all need to comply with the relevant parts of the Building Code of Australia, but also with ergonomic guidelines, which reduce the likelihood that people will slip and fall,” he explains. “Ergonomists study human gait. This data can be translated into specifications for slip resistance at the right places; for example, not just on the treads of stairs, but at their noses.”
Where the cost of slip or fall accidents can be traced back to defects in design, it can prove costly to the designers and others along the chain, he adds, noting that it is far more effective to consult the experts at the design or fitout stage to ensure that the entire project has taken account of critical human factors that affect every built area.

3. Seating and furniture
The use of ergonomic products such as task chairs, flat screen monitor arms, task lighting and height adjustable desks is one way of improving the health, well-being, comfort, performance and productivity in the workplace, Stacey notes. He says that these products work together to give the individual more control over their own environment; for instance, flat screen monitor arms create valuable space on desks and allow the computer user to position the monitor at the correct height and distance from themselves, creating better posture and assisting with increased comfort levels.
According to Stacey, one of the key areas to look at when purchasing any product is its ease of use and intuitive nature. Ergonomic office products are no different. “We have found that the vast majority of people do not adjust their task chairs because they’re too complex to use,” he says. “Task chairs have been designed with around five to six manual adjustments to make sure the chair fits all the different shapes and sizes of people in the workplace. This makes sense on paper, but the reality is that because the users don’t know where to find the adjustments and what to do with them when they do find them, most people just adjust the height of the chair.”
He adds that the typical office worker spends a large amount of time sitting in their chair, so the need for them to use it correctly is of huge importance in increasing productivity and avoiding injury. In his opinion, the most successful task chairs are those that offer automation. “Today’s most innovative task chairs feature form-sensing lumbar supports and self-adjusting recline mechanisms, which tension the backrest based on the user’s body weight, allowing the chair to move with the user, depending on the task.”
Dohrmann warns that there is a need to be wary of the label ‘ergonomic’, which is often just an advertising tag. “A truly ergonomic chair is sized and shaped to suit what it is actually used for – a visitor’s chair is not a task chair, and a boardroom chair is another thing again. Chairs should have the Australian Furniture Research and Development Industry (AFRDI) rating for strength, function and fit,” he states. He notes that professional ergonomists should be consulted for reliable independent advice on the short-listing and selection of chairs for different purposes.

4. Glazing
Glazing is a critical factor in any sustainable green building, having direct relevance to heat control, lighting management and appearance. Dohrmann notes that glazing and curtain planning go hand in hand, and that ergonomic advice addresses reflection control, restful vision and light management.

5. Disabled access
Regarding disabled access, Dohrmann states that Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) compliance frequently draws on ergonomics advice, since a solution for achieving DDA compliance is usually also a good ergonomic solution.

Dohrmann states that it is important to be careful in selecting the right ergonomics adviser, since their key skills will normally be strongest in the area of their primary discipline. He notes that skilled ergonomists usually have a supporting qualification or discipline such as engineering, architecture, physiology or an allied health speciality. “If you’re looking for ergonomics advice, seek out a Certified Professional Ergonomist (CPE). You can be confident that a CPE is properly trained, experienced and able to provide answers within their own sphere of expertise,” he explains.
Oakman stresses the importance of using a participative approach and involving the people who are doing the job, the immediate supervisors and their managers. “It is important to listen and then use the ideas from the people who are undertaking the work, as they have the best understanding of the work. A good ergonomist will always consult with a range of people involved in the work being undertaken,” she notes.
“Modern ergonomics covers a fascinating range of applications, focused on securing a safe, comfortable and productive ‘fit’ between built environments and the people who use them,” Dohrmann concludes.

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