Ergonomics: How design impacts our health

07 November 2017

Interview with 

Alan Hedge, Cornell University

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What about the workplace needs to be considered when thinking about health, and how will the world of work change in future? Georgia Mills spoke to Alan Hedge, who’s professor of ergonomics at Cornell University...

Alan - Ergonomics, literally, means the science of work. Most organisations don’t optimise the workplace. Often, equipment is not designed to give you the best performance and, often, people don’t work in the most efficient way.

Georgia - Okay. So could you give me an example of how, potentially, your environment or your equipment might negatively affect a worker?

Alan - We’re looking at the physical environment. We know that poor temperatures can actually lead to reductions in work performance. We know that poor spatial layouts can impact communication patterns between people and that can reduce productivity. We also know that sitting people down all day long is now not a great idea and neither is standing people up all day long.

Georgia - So why is sitting down such a problem?

Alan - Sitting for too long, undoubtedly, is a problem. We know that in terms of what happens to your circulatory system. We know that in terms of what happens to the way that you process the calories that you eat or drink. We know that in terms of what happens to muscles and muscle strength. Your body is really designed to move.

But, likewise, standing up is equally problematic. We know that standing for too long increases risks of varicose veins, increases risks of carotid artery disease. So the key is don’t sit all day, don’t stand all day - mix it up.

Georgia - What other ways are there we can think about the design of a workplace that can improve the health or productivity of a worker?

Alan - When you think about designing an optimal workplace, what you have to think about first of all is what are people doing and, secondly, what equipment are they using? Now these days, a lot of people can do work on portable devices so, if that’s the case, those individuals don’t necessarily need to have a dedicated desk; you can actually work in a much smaller footprint.

What that means is that people go to work and it’s like checking into a hotel. So the trend that we are seeing in workplaces, at least here in the States, is to take that individual space and to take a chunk of that and create what we call a “shared space” that allows you to put different kinds of experiences into the building.

So we’re seeing more use of things like relaxation rooms in buildings where you can just go for 5 or 10 minutes just to de-stress a little bit before going back to the job that you’re doing. What you end up with at the end of the day are significant improvements in the health of individuals and you also have significantly more movement.

Georgia - Now what about temperature? Obviously here in the UK it’s starting to get pretty cold, so how can that affect performance and what can we do about it?

Alan - We have done a lot of work looking at temperature in relation to how much work people do. And what we found is that often buildings are too cold for an optimal level of work for individuals. Ironically, here in the US, that’s related to air conditioning in summertime. We find that the optimal temperatures usually are in the range of 25-26 celsius, which is often 4-6 degrees higher than people set their thermostats to.

Georgia - Is it true as well that different people are comfortable at different temperatures?

Alan - It is true that different people are comfortable at different temperatures because the muscles generate a significant amount of body heat. Men, on average, have about 30% more muscle mass than women so men, typically, are going to generate more heat, and there’s also some evidence that it relates to the distribution of body fat. So, yes, you do see these functional differences.

Georgia - So if everyone’s running at different temperatures, how can we solve this - with design or something like that?

Alan - One way is to create environments in which individual work spaces have their own temperature control. And, indeed, at the moment we’re testing a small portable air conditioning unit that will provide about 4 to 6 degrees of cooling. The advantage of looking at some kind of personal air conditioning system is that you can locally heat or cool the air, and filter the air where the person’s actually breathing the air.

What we are working on at the moment are systems that use relatively little energy to actually achieve all of these things. Little more than the energy of just running a fan, whereas large cooling systems in buildings use a huge amount of energy. In the US, a third of all of our energy is expended just by cooling buildings.

Georgia - Could you paint me a picture of the office of the future?

Alan - Technology is going to become part of every object that’s in the office. We’re going to have what we call “intelligent walls” or “intelligent surfaces.” There are a lot of projection technologies that let you interact with the computer system simply by making movements. We’re definitely going to see more variety in the workspace; we’re going to see more flexible work schedules; more personal monitoring; more wearable technology.

If you just look at the growth in things like Apple watch or the Fitbits or the Polar monitors, or whatever it is, your activity tracker is giving you information about your health status. We’re definitely going to see more impact wearables in the future.

The bottom line here is to try and extend the working life of individuals and also maintain their health.

Georgia - Oh, good. So I’ll be able to keep working until I’m 95.

Alan - That’s very good for you; it’s healthy for you. In fact, nothing will speed up your atrophy like stopping working, and work doesn’t have to necessarily be physically incredibly difficult. But if you look at many highly productive individuals, they are still working and mentally, at least, into their 80s and 90s.

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