Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Ergonomist studies how labor tools affect humans

A good historical overview of ergonomics research ...

"Richard W. Marklin Jr. lops branches, shovels clay, carves 30-pound cattle femurs, pulls 270-pound manhole covers and studies the workers who make their living performing these tasks.

Human labor is his laboratory.

The 50-year-old professor in Marquette University's mechanical engineering department examines the way we work and the toll that work takes on our joints, muscles and bones. Known as ergonomics, or human factors engineering, Marklin's field takes him from some of mankind's most primitive tools - the shovel and hammer - to some of its most advanced - the computer keyboard and optical scanner.

"As humans, we're very creative," he says. "We were given this very powerful brain, and we can design new products all the time and new tasks. But when new technology is introduced, it also introduces new problems."

While optical scanners greatly reduced checkout time at the grocery store, Marklin says, they required clerks to make the same wrist-lowering motion thousands of times a day at high speed, leading to a class of injuries known as cumulative trauma disorders. Wrist tendons grew sore and inflamed. They deteriorated.

More than a decade ago, Marklin and several colleagues at Ohio State University monitored the forearms and wrists of clerks and recommended the use of multiple scan beams to reduce wrist motion.

These days, Marklin works in the field and in his lab, testing the next generation of shovels, screwdrivers, branch loppers and computer keyboards.

He studies workers as they perform utility line tasks requiring so much physical strength that they can be done by only 1 percent of the population. He measures their oxygen intake to determine the energy they're spending. He measures the amount of effort needed to perform a task, for example the keystroke needed to produce each of these letters (2 to 3 ounces of static force, though most people apply two to 10 times that amount).

Marklin not only studies workers, he joins them. He has carved beef on an "animal disassembly line" and has ridden a bucket truck 70 feet in the air with utility workers.

His brain is so finely tuned to the pitch of work that he seldom passes a crew without noticing something: the way construction laborers bend to lift plywood, the way roofers heft 90-pound bags of shingles as they climb ladders.

His mission addresses the fundamental balancing act of human toil."    (Continued via The Charlotte Observer)    [Ergonomics Resources]

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