Current and Future Opportunities in Ergonomics

by Professor Ergo on January 1, 2009

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– Michael J Smith, PhD, CPE

In the final keynote address of the 2008 National Ergonomic Conference and Exposition Smith delivered a well constructed speech regarding opportunities in ergonomics.  He listed three main Human Factors and Ergonomics (HFE) objectives:
1. Enhance efficiency, productivity, and effectiveness of systems and products
2. Enhance functionality, usability, and desirability of systems and products
3. Enhance safety, health and quality of life
HFE helps guide technology and systems design to focus on human capabilities.

Healthcare in 2006 was 16% of the gross domestic product.  This was much higher than the manufacturing GDP.  Thus, we need to focus on preventative healthcare and reduce the need for treatment healthcare.  The needed focus on prevention leads Smith to firmly believe that in the next four years there will be an ergonomic standard with the Obama administration.  Smith was very adamant that this will occur.

As ergonomics continues to gain traction throughout industry, many occupations are involved with ergonomics.  This includes engineers, physical therapists, nurses, doctors, psychiatrists, architects, chiropractors, etc.  It’s important to avoid being prejudiced towards any occupation that is practicing ergonomics as they ALL add value in their unique way.

There are many organizations that foster improvements in ergonomics.  These include the hfes.orgiea.cc,bcpe.orgaiha.orgasse.orgacm.orgieee.orgnas.edu and nsc.org.  It’s important for ergonomists to join these organizations as they all make significant contributions toward growing and bettering ergonomics.

The International Ergonomics Association (IEA) has 10,000 members worldwide.  These people are in more demand when economic times are tough as they can improve systems and make them more efficient for human operations, thus reducing costs.  Industrial Engineers in the US are getting hired even in today’s tough business climate.

Healthcare ergonomics is the fastest growing ergonomics field today.  The healthcare industry is scrambling to reduce errors and design systems that function like a lean manufacturing assembly line.  Healthcare companies are focused on improvements such as time studies, programming usability focused software, and focusing on patient handling and moving.

Even psychologists are getting more into the field of ergonomics.  The social environment has a huge impact in people reporting pain.  In one area of a plant or factory employees can be going frequently to a doctor that is diagnosing them with Muscular Skeletal Disorders and Repetitive Motion Injuries.  In another part of the same plant the employees doing the same work can report having no pain.  This is mainly because they are happy employees.  Smith found this after years of working in plants.  Everything is inter-related in ergonomics, including psychology.

On a very interesting new note, Smith said that NIOSH is thinking about psychosocial “stress” standards.  Stress is a known ergonomic issue in that it affects the muscles.  I personally think it’s hard to believe that we could create a standard based on stress.  I quickly noticed that the audience members behind me were chatting it being hard to fathom.

The current trends in the field of ergonomics are:
1. Increasing use of automation
2. Computers and Telecom
3. Increasing office, lab and service sector jobs.
4. Fewer manufacturing jobs
5. Huge focus on biotech, nanotech, and infotech
6. Aging workforce
7. Jobs are increasingly requiring complex skills as far as cognitive abilities
8. Increased focus on quality, productivity, and usability

Best bets for Human Factors and Ergonomics Employment are:
1. Traditional industries
2. Healthcare
3. Product development, usability, safety, and design
4. Service quality; work design, motivation
5. Government: Ergonomic standards are coming soon
6. Legal, liability, standards, OSHA
7. Research – government, universities, industry
The future of ergonomic related employment is very bright.

Smith explained that what’s needed to succeed in ergonomics is education, credentials, experience, professional certifications, affiliation with professional groups, and continued education and development.

Smith concluded by saying that a performance based ergonomic standard is going to be introduced by the Obama administration within the next four years.

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Written by Professor Ergo

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