Ergonomics: What’s in a name?

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The term “Voodoo Economics” was coined by George Bush Sr. when he was criticizing Reagan’s economic policies in the Republican primaries of 1980.

This term was ingeniously borrowed and modified recently by ergonomist Ian Chong to bring attention to the often sloppy and opportunistic misuse of the term “ergonomic” to sell a product by naming this trend “Voodoo Ergonomics.”

Ergonomics is the science of fitting the environment (tools, machines, desks, etc.) and work methods (such as work-rest intervals and body positions while working, etc.) to the worker in order to decrease physical stress, lower injury rates and increase productivity.

In the mass marketplace, the plethora of products which have used the term ergonomic have included such things as common computer keyboards, chairs and furniture, but has extended to spuriously usurping the term for more outlandish uses with such products as mattresses, swimwear, underwear, and even diaper bags. It is hard to think how these products could said to have an ergonomic design.

You may ask in what way is clothing ergonomic? Do they mean it fits better? Tailors then should be able to add the phrase ‘ergonomic adjustments’ to their list of services.

Toothbrushes have even had their share of odd looking ‘ergonomic’ designs. Are these useful? How many people are getting repetitive strain injuries in their wrists and elbows from brushing their teeth? If they are, they probably need to see their dentist for enamel replacements because they are pressing way too hard on their teeth.

The marketing profession is selling products that often have no real ergonomic application or science behind them just because they can borrow the word ‘ergonomic’, which really does have legitimate meaning and usefulness. However, even products like keyboards and office chairs can use the word ergonomic indiscriminately though the design may be anywhere from excellent or poor. And one excellent item may not fit or work for one person compared to the next, so ergonomics is really about individually fitting the product to the person, which means that usually the product should be adjustable, or at least made to order for the person.

One example of a supposed ergonomic invention that not only hasn’t worked well, but can actually cause problems is the wrist rest found on some computer keyboards. By resting your arms on the wrist rest while typing you increase the pressure inside the carpal tunnel and this in turn can irritate and inflame wrist tendons thereby causing a repetitive strain injury instead of preventing one.

The use of stability balls (also called Swiss balls or physio balls) in the office has been a hot topic of debate since they are appearing more frequently in the workplace as a replacement for traditional office chairs. In 2006 there was published studies comparing muscle use while sitting on a stability ball versus sitting on an office chair (Spring edition of Human Factors journal). The results show that there is no appreciable difference in muscle activation between the two for ergonomists to recommend these balls in an office setting.

In the end, there is another term besides ‘ergonomic’ people should be aware of: caveat emptor – let the buyer beware.

 

Kerry Senchyna holds a bachelor of science degree in kinesiology and is owner of West Coast Kinesiology in Maple Ridge (westcoastkinesiology.com).