Most people probably don’t think much about 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, part of the job is thinking about how to perform even the simplest of tasks. In fact, almost every action a person performs, whether at home or at 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 worked to improve the health and safety of the state’s workers for more than 25 years. Today, the Center’s faculty, staff and students fully embrace that legacy as they look to the future.
“This year we’re celebrating all of our accomplishments,” said Ergo Center Project Manager Martha Parker. “The most important thing is our graduates.”
Ergonomics in action
As Benden explains, the whole field of ergonomics is largely about finding the right “fit”—ensuring that the tools, environments, and processes involved in a given task are a good fit for the person doing that task performs, taking into account the natural strengths and weaknesses of the human body.
This can be as simple as adding wheels to a suitcase or adjusting a desk to a more natural height, or as complex as designing an entirely new device from scratch.
“There are many different things that go into what we design, build or do to help someone accomplish the tasks they want to perform,” said Benden, professor and chief of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Medicine from Texas A&M’s School of Public Health. “This could be a hobby, it could be brushing your teeth, it could be something as important as a person working at a refinery performing a dangerous job that needs to be done correctly for the safety of everyone around them.”
It’s all the order of the day for the team at the Ergo Center on A&M’s west campus. There you will find experts in engineering, health, psychology and more working together on challenges such as designing more functional and supportive office furniture and developing techniques and technologies to make manual work less tiring.
“If something has good ergonomics, you know it when you see it,” said Benden. “You’ve probably experienced some things that were ergonomically bad — it could have been frustrating, it could have been painful, it could have just been inefficient or ineffective in what it was supposed to do.”
Countless hours of work are put into recognizing and tackling such problems at the Ergo Center. As Parker notes, an ergonomist’s job is often as much about streamlining entire systems as it is about optimizing individual tools. Employers often turn to the center to look for new ways to make their workplaces smoother and safer.
“Sometimes when we look at the context in which a person is working, this process is just terribly inefficient; no one looked at the big picture,” Parker said. “So we go in and evaluate these jobs with their tools and our tools and present our findings along with some recommendations.”
The resulting benefits often speak for themselves as factors such as employee productivity and health begin to improve.
“It’s really enlightening to learn how important it is for our bodies to function properly in a workplace, and also how much money a company can save by having the right ergonomics in their workplace,” said Michayla Strange, a graduate student in this profession safety and health program and student assistant at the Ergo Center.
Times change, tools change
Down in their lab, team members have access to a variety of devices that measure the physical and mental stress associated with a specific task.
They also have numerous devices for designing and building new ergonomic products. Over the past 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 are working on several right now,” Benden said. “One of those is a computer mouse that can track your health, so it knows, for example, if you have a fever, if you have a coronary event, or if you have a substance abuse problem.”
This and several other ongoing projects emerged during the global outbreak of COVID-19, as the center began work to address the unique needs and concerns that the pandemic has created for workers and employers.
Chief among these, Parker said, is the widespread shift toward 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.
“Interest in remote work has grown a lot since COVID, so most of our training is focused on remote work and many of our products are now remote work-ready as well,” said Parker. “All we read is that the scale of remote work is still going to increase, perhaps at a rate of 3 to 5 percent per year.”
Whether it’s at home or the office, Emily Findeisen, a doctoral student in occupational safety and health, said it’s always helpful to keep ergonomics in mind. As part of her role as a student assistant at the Ergo Center, Findeisen helps employees by pointing out simple but effective changes they can make to their routines and workspaces.
“You don’t always think about how your chair, desk or computer can affect your health or cause pain and discomfort — and how small things like adjusting your armrest can have a crazy impact on a person,” she said. “It makes me feel good because I’m learning something and then I can go out and teach others.”
For Parker, it’s these experiences that inspire her to come to work each day as she and the rest of the Ergo Center team use everything 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 life every day,” Parker said. “It’s a wonderful feeling. And A&M allows us to impact the lives of Texans in ways we could never achieve on our own.”