Most people probably don’t put much thought into how they sit in a chair, pick up an object, or send an email.
But for Texas A&M Ergo Center Director Mark Benden and his team, thinking about the act of performing even the simplest of tasks is part of the job. In fact, just about every action a person performs, whether at home or work, presents a new challenge for researchers to solve – how to make the process as safe and efficient as possible.
First organized by The Texas A&M University System Board of Regents in 1996, the Ergo Center has been working to improve the health and safety of the state’s workforce for more than 25 years. Today, the faculty, staff and students at the center are fully embracing that legacy as they look towards the future.
“This year, we celebrate all our accomplishments,” said Ergo Center Project Manager Martha Parker. “Most importantly, our graduates.”
Ergonomics In Action
As Benden explains, the overall field of ergonomics is largely about finding the right “fit” — ensuring that the tools, environments and processes involved in a given task are well-suited to the person performing that task, while accounting for the natural strengths and weaknesses of the human body.
That could mean something as simple as putting wheels on a suitcase or adjusting a desk to a more natural height, or as complex as designing an entirely new piece of equipment from the ground up.
“There’s a lot of different things that go into what we might design, build or do to help someone perform the tasks they want to perform,” said Benden, a professor and head of the Department of Environmental & Occupational Health at Texas A&M’s School of Public Health. “That could be a hobby, it could be brushing your teeth, it could be something as important as a person who’s in a refinery performing a dangerous task that needs to be done correctly for the safety of everyone around them.”
It’s all in a day’s work for the team at the Ergo Center on A&M’s West Campus. There you’ll find experts from the fields of engineering, health, psychology and more working together on challenges like designing more functional and supportive office furniture and developing techniques and technologies to make manual labor less taxing.
“If something has good ergonomics, you’ll know it when you see it,” Benden said. “You’ve probably experienced some things that were bad ergonomics — it could have been frustrating, it could have been painful, it could have simply been inefficient or ineffective at doing whatever it’s supposed to do.”
At the Ergo Center, countless hours of work go into recognizing and addressing those kinds of problems. As Parker notes, the work of an ergonomist is often just as much about streamlining whole systems as it is about optimizing individual tools. Employers frequently approach the center looking for new ways to make their workplaces run more smoothly and safely.
“When we look at the context in which a person is doing work, sometimes that process is just terribly inefficient; no one has looked at the big picture,” Parker said. “So we’ll go in and evaluate those jobs with their tools and our tools, and we’ll present our findings along with some recommendations.”
The resulting benefits often speak for themselves, as factors like productivity and employee health begin to improve.
“It’s really eye-opening to learn how important it is for our bodies to function correctly in a workspace and also how much money a company can save by having the appropriate ergonomics in their workspace,” said Michayla Strange, a graduate student in the occupational safety and health program and Ergo Center student worker.
Changing Times, Changing Tools
Down in their lab, team members have access to a host of devices that measure the physical and mental stresses associated with a given task.
They also have plenty of equipment for designing and building new ergonomic products. Over the last two decades, the center has received more than 30 different patents for its designs.
“We continue to commercialize and patent products that industry wants to use, and we’re working on several right now,” Benden said. “One of those is a computer mouse that can track your health, so it’s going to know for instance if you’ve got a fever, if you have a coronary event, or if you’re having a substance abuse problem.”
This and several other ongoing projects arose during the worldwide outbreak of COVID-19, as the center started working to address the unique needs and concerns the pandemic created for workers and employers.
Chief among these, Parker said, is the widespread shift towards remote work, a practice that was already on the rise before the pandemic made it the norm for many workplaces. Earlier this year, the center announced a new partnership with Nokia to provide enhanced training resources for remote workers.
“There has been much more interest in remote work since COVID, so most of our training is focused on remote work and a lot of our products are now focused on remote work too,” Parker said. “Everything we read is that the level of remote work is still going to increase, maybe at a rate of three to five percent per year.”
Whether at home or in the office, occupational safety and health graduate student Emily Findeisen said it always helps to keep ergonomics in mind. As part of her role as an Ergo Center student worker, Findeisen helps employees do just that, by pointing out simple but effective changes they can make to their routines and workspaces.
“You don’t always think about how your chair or your desk or your computer can affect your health or cause pain and discomfort — and how little things like adjusting your armrest can have a crazy impact on a person,” she said. “It makes me feel good because I learn something and then I get to go and teach others.”
For Parker, it’s exactly those kinds of experiences that make her excited to come to work every day, as she and the rest of the Ergo Center team use all they’ve discovered to create tangible benefits for workers across the state.
“We see that through our outreach and our research efforts, we are impacting real lives every day,” Parker said. “That is a wonderful feeling. And A&M allows us to impact the lives of Texans in a way that we would never be able to do on our own.”