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Wednesday, Mar 20, 2002

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Designs to make people work better

A. V. Swaminathan


In this Microsoft Natural Keyboard, the keypads are split and rotated outward to help users keep their shoulders straighter and arms more relaxed while typing. A wrist-levelling rail on the keyboard facilitates straighter wrist position (right).

A LARGE number of work-related injuries, physical disabilities, muscular pains, disorders in the nervous system, eye defects, and even morbidity or depression are attributed by doctors to "ergonomic hazards" that are to be found in most occupations. Employers, therefore, have become increasingly sensitive to the problems that emerge as side effects of work-related operations.

The rapid advances in computer technology have triggered a proliferation of ancillary industries, in which workers face direct risks due to tedious hours of intense concentration, dull monotony of operations and, above all, a sedentary routine forced on them. The subject of `ergonomics' has, consequently, gained much attention in recent times, and every fresh design or development in equipment, vehicles or seating arrangements invariably accommodates modifications, dictated by the new considerations.

Auto industry

A prime area where ergonomic design has come to play a very useful role is in proper seating facilities for the driver and passengers in an automobile. Reputed manufacturers in the US make a special mention of such improvements whenever they bring out new models. Driving for long stretches in uninterrupted spells on inter-State highways can cause severe backache, joint pain, and cramps if the vehicle has the conventional type of seating of yesteryear.

Now, scientifically created contours assure the driver essential support to various parts of the body that are most prone to physical strain from prolonged sessions at the wheel. Passengers in the back seat are not free of the ill-effects of long travel, either. Hence, revisions or reengineering in vehicles include shaping and proper seating in the cabin for maximum ease and minimum confinement.

As in the case of passenger cars, trucks moving across the widely spread out American States have undergone changes, too, necessitated by ergonomic improvements. They include the provision of better suspension system for reducing vibrations and absorbing shocks, apart from contour seats for more suitable posture for the driver. Nowadays, buses in inter-city operations claim to provide luxury in travel, thanks to well-formed, ergonomically modelled stretching seats, with plenty of leg-room, and arm- and head-rests in a spacious setting. The popularity of the Greyhound Bus Service in the US, with its vast network connecting most cities is, therefore, not surprising.

Computer industry

The seemingly innocuous computer, referred to as a genie ready to serve instantly at one's bidding, is not so naive or innocent. For work in the field has been proved to bring untold harm to the physical and physiological functions of the human body. The large-scale growth of the semiconductor industry and of units manufacturing products for computer applications in California and Oregon has, no doubt, contributed greatly to the economy of these States but at considerable risk of injuries and troubles arising from ergonomic hazards!

As a corrective step, however, computer companies have begun comprehensive ergonomic programmes in their plants and offices in order to render to employees a better environment, allow opportunities for relaxation and introduce more agreeable postures for working. The stress is shifted to evolving ideal conditions within, so that workers exposed to the screen all through the duty hours and sitting in closed confinement with very little physical exertion are able to counter the resulting strain.

Safety departments also sponsor lectures and workshops to highlight injury areas, fatigue-causing operations and reasons for monotony and psychological maladjustments, which are likely to be experienced in the occupation. It has been claimed by officials of the organisations that a steady pursuit of the program has helped reduce injuries and disabilities to an appreciable extent.

Intel Corporation, the world leader in chip manufacture, has some unique routines for shift workers at its Hillsboro plant. As part of the duty cycle, workers have to compulsorily go through a 15 minute session in calisthenics at the commencement of each shift with a view to loosening the limbs preparatory to work that involves movements back and forth, lifting and carrying silicon wafer boxes weighing around 15 lbs and many other operations connected with the actual manufacturing process.

Intermittent breaks of about 10 minutes in the course of the shift are further intended to provide brief escapes away from bouts of boredom and fatigue. A fully equipped gymnasium is an additional facility in the factory, and employees can seize a regular workout here without the need to look for one elsewhere.

Short bouts of exercise and rest at intervals are, indeed, absolute requirements to persons in this line. In fact, most people in the computer industry, especially those specialising in software, turn into addicts and in start carrying their work anywhere and everywhere, much beyond their duty hours. Instead of resting in their homes, they keep themselves tied to laptops, typing away far into the late hours of the night. They, more than anyone else, need regular exercise at a gymnasium.

In the office

The era of steel filing cabinets, independent cubicles, big conference- tables, rigid right-angled chairs and an air of frightful sternness in the office is fast giving way to revolutionary concepts. The trend is for facilitating a "work attitude using softer curving forms to embrace rather than alienate the worker". A recent exhibition in New York offered an insight into this fresh approach by displaying items for furnishing a modern office. The various designs of office furniture seemed well suited to workplace of the present day, replete with electronic gadgetry in an intricate communication system.

Office furniture no longer represents status or authority, and the uniformity in structure and informal layout promotes a feeling of equality and satisfaction, liberty and enjoyment among employees.

Flexibility in the choice of locations for working, free from any fixed boundary or restriction, affords an ideal ambience for serious application to work without strain.

The younger generation, born in a high-tech world, believes in an office environment that conjures up an experience of operating as a community or team and also inspires them to greater heights of imagination and performance.

Changing views

Age-old, obscurant views on machinery and equipment in the factory premises and other work places cannot hold good in the fast-developing industrial climate today.

The motto of production through ceaseless exertion, converting the participant into a mere cog in the performance wheel, is now entirely recast to make the workplace functionally effective and aesthetically pleasing.

(The author is a US-based freelance writer.)

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