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ORANGE COUNTY AT WORK: CAREERS, COMPANIES, CORPORATE LIFE : Ergonomics: Serious Business for Business, and for People Who Work

May 03, 1987|JEFF ROWE | Jeff Rowe is a free-lance writer

To the uninitiated, the term "ergonomics" conjures images of an eccentric pursuit closely allied with people who wear earth shoes, eat yogurt and worry about highway safety.

But a growing body of statistics suggests that ergonomics--the study of problems people have in adjusting to their environment--is serious business and the application of its principles in the workplace can boost productivity and reduce health care costs.

Perhaps nowhere is the growth of the art and science of ergonomics more evident than at the University of California, Irvine, where some of the most ambitious efforts in the nation to study workplace efficiency are under way.

"Interior design is as much a tool (for business) as the computer," said Dan Stokols, who has been a professor with the UCI Social Ecology program since 1973. He also is director of the school's Environmental Simulation Laboratory, a laboratory office in which changes can be made in lighting, furniture, noise levels and background music to test productivity and worker satisfaction.

Used for Testing

The lab-office, which is equipped with observation decks, is the focal point of UCI's ergonomics program and is used during testing sessions with groups of workers. Under the close scrutiny of Stokols and his staff, who can survey the entire operations from observation decks, workers' responses to everything from their seat adjustments to the plants on their desks can be measured.

UCI researchers are beginning to make specific links between worker health and performance and the variables of office layout, furniture, lighting and even such details as plants, wall posters and background music. Using equipment donated by area companies such as McMahan Desk of Anaheim and Alpha Microsystems Inc. of Irvine, researchers at UCI are testing just about every office environment variable.

Such studies are part of an important trend, Stokols said, "the growing awareness of how employee health, productivity and . . . effectiveness are influenced by the design and management of corporate facilities."

As a measure of that growing awareness, the social ecology program at UCI--which includes ergonomics, legal studies, social behavior and environmental health--has grown to 30 full-time faculty members from 10 a decade ago.

Graduates of UCI's programs find government and industry increasingly interested in their field, Stokols said.

For example, at Larry Seeman Associates Inc., several graduates of the UCI program helped the environmental, transportation and natural resources management concern in planning its recent move from Newport Beach to new offices in Irvine. Before making the move, the company carefully mapped its old quarters and then calculated not only its new space requirements but also what shape they ought to take. In conjunction with UCI, the company is testing worker response to every detail of the new facility--lighting, noise levels and even the utility of fabric panels used to pin maps on.

Although the results are not in yet, the company is convinced that its attention to ergonomics was a worthwhile investment. "It's definitely an improvement," said Carollyn Lobell, director of environmental services at the company.

Another Irvine company, Kawasaki Motors Corp. U.S.A. weighed ergonomic data from scientific articles and furniture makers before consolidating four typical desk-chair-offices from around the county last year under one roof. Now, 200 employees sit on ergonomic chairs and work at modular desks.

This increase attention to ergonomics began in the mid-1970s, when ergonomists were able to link concerns such as slipping American productivity, rising health care costs and the proliferation of office automation. It became clear that working conditions had to be adaptable to workers' needs to ensure productivity. "Human factors," as ergonomics is often called in the United States, became an area of increased importance.

Started in Germany Ergonomics got its start in the 1920s with a group of designers in Germany who advocated construction of objects for and around the human body. With the development of high-performance aircraft in World War II, the exact location of switches and control levers often became of life-and-death importance to a pilot.

Within the space program, engineers realized spacecraft interiors had to be precisely designed around astronauts.

At the Hughes Aircraft Co.'s Ground System Group in Fullerton, for instance, ergonomics is a critical concern on an air traffic control system design the company is working on in conjunction with several other companies.

"We're looking at tower configurations, en route traffic control centers, lighting, work stations, keyboard layouts, touch screens and display formats--how do you arrange the controls to reduce errors," said Dick Hornick, a senior staff engineer on the project.

But for the ordinary earthbound worker, it was the proliferation of office computers that gave ergonomics a great boost.

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