The most weird species : Ergonomics

  • Post category:Psychology / Social
  • Reading time:14 min(s) read

The regular reader might be aware of this new series “The most weird species”. I have already written on “recognition” and it “specialness”. Today, I will try to approach the weirdness from the perspective of ergonomics. I, like most people, thought that ergonomics is just about designing some fancy and thus expensive office furniture. Recently, I learned it has a wider coverage area and is considered as a branch of science. Anyone who works in some kind of “modern office”, would have had some orientation about ergonomics. In some offices, there are even some departments, where one can book and appointment to an expert The expert, then comes and teaches how to sit on a chair and a desk properly.

Ergonomics (or human factors) is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design to optimize human well-being and overall system performance.

Why to assess weirdness of a species from the perspective of Ergonomics? We shall see some examples later, but one thing that makes it special that we are the only one who are actively trying to figure it out, how to sit, how to stand, how to lean, how to bend and so on. While this idea of active learning cuts through many other domains e.g. learning how to breathe properly, but I will try to restrain the discussion only to ergonomics for today. It is of course considered important in modern office oriented workplace, lower back pain or neck pain as the world’s most common work related disability. This apparently due to bad ergonomics of the workplace.

egonomics-standing-chair

Source : wayfair.com

Click on the photo to know more about it

Many different companies for decades have used ergonomics as a way to create new chairs, new desks, new keyboards, mouse and other accessories. Science of ergonomics was then used a way to sell it to many corporate offices, showing that by avoiding “disability days”, their overall work productivity will improve. Interestingly, companies then make bulk orders as that would give them a better financial deal. But this is like, making a sales presentations for a tailored suits and shirts and then making a sale for a bulk of S, M, L and XL shirts because mass production of course helps reduce the cost. In a way, it is an appropriate decision as one cannot wait for an employee to join, take its measures and then order the relevant office equipment to help avoid injuries for the specific employee. Even, if one companies does it, they may do it only to find that employee left after 3 months. Maybe companies would then need to add a ergonomics clause in the contract that due to specific investment for the employee work productivity and health considerations, employee cannot quite before 1 year or must buy all the equipment if (s)he quits!

simple desk chair

Remember this?

I agree, today there are many special chairs and desks with all kind of adjustments possible. Few of the common adjustments are :

  • Height of a chair or desk
  • Flexibility of the back rest to recline back or to stay stiff.
  • Ability to have arms adjusted by height or even to hang it down.
  • Some chairs have the possible to move the seat horizontally to help adjust the alignment of lower back and hips.
  • There are some chairs, which provide a vertically adjustable bar that has a cushion to align for the back curve to an individuals needs.
  • Desks have special shelfs to have keyboard to adjust to the arms length, while a separate one for the monitor to align to the eyes.
  • There are computer keyboards with very curved/designer layout of the keys, mentioning that research has suggested this is perfect to avoid wrist and forearm pain.

These are some of the standards ones, which are already popular for atleast a decade. As the research continues, new ideas keep on coming and new products keep on being sold. E.g. latest studies proposed that human body is not designed to sit and thus standing is better. Today, one can have desk height adjusted to make it a standing table rather than a sitting table. In the standing domain, some says that all human body is not designed to stand for too long as well. So, rather than standing some prefer to have stationary bike as a seat, so they can peddle while working. There are claims that it helps improve blood circulation and thus improving brain function too. There are others who have modified their treadmill to accommodate a workstation. While some one else says, it is about keeping the back engaged. Thus they have designed special chair to have back at specific position to avoid back injuries. While some just took the adjustments to extreme and designed a fully adjustable working station.

While some people are looking at human physiology and proposing designs of the furniture. There are others who are saying that after all human body is flexible and adjustable by itself and we need to train and adapt our bodies to make it work in various conditions, while still saying healthy. Eg. Some has thrown away their fancy desks and chairs and they just use a simple gym ball to sit and work. The idea is that dynamics of the ball forces the back, abs and other muscles to keep on working and thus strengthening the body at the same time while working. There are others who rather propose to sit on the floor and thus use the configuration even to enable flexibility of the muscles and joints. As sitting on the floor makes you adjust your position often and provide varieties of possibilities. This helps avoid sitting in the same position for a long time and thus avoid immobility and any slowdown of blood flow.

Someone said, “20 bad positions frequently changed are better than 1 good position for a long time”

One of my ex-colleagues developed a back pain and visited physiotherapists and tried many fancy chairs. After a year or so, one day he happened to sit on an ordinary simple chair and worked for some time. He realized that his back did not pain that day. He tried few more times to rule out the possibility of chance. In fact it was the simple chair that helped him to ease his back pain. Apparently, after a lot of hit and trial he found the chair which was right for him. This is after all purpose of the ergonomics. It does not matter how many zippers and buttons you put on some dress or a shirt or coat, it will (as of today) will not match the fitting of a tailored dress.

Same is the case for the other objects we interact with. Take an example of kitchen shelf. If there are 2 people living in the house you cannot have 2 different heights of the kitchen shelf. One can only find a compromise; maybe by doing some calculations based on various parameters e.g. Height of individuals, amount of time they spent in kitchen, type of interaction they have with objects, how they can arrange their stuff and so on. This will remain like this until we design some really interactive objects that keep on adjusting based on our body condition. Imagine a chair and desk combination that kind of absorbs you in, measures you physiological attributes and adjust itself (along with you) to the appropriate position. The position that makes you comfortable, does not put too much pressure on given points for too long and ensure proper blood flow. As your vitals change based on how long you have spend on the chair, it will keep on adjusting itself from knee chair to classic chair to gym ball to standing chair and maybe on the floor. Who knows it may have features that helps you move your feet to ensure some extra blood flow if needed by the body. It may provide support to neck and head when it needs rest, takes it away so that neck does not lose its strength and forgets its function and also nudge you to stretch your neck in different directions at appropriate times to avoid stiffness. Do you think it is just a little too much?

Like most people who are addicted to sitting due to work, habit or sheer laziness, I also keep on facing backpain and I keep on trying new ways to help avoid it. I have tried many of these fancy chairs. I have also tried having a standing work table. At times I had 2 different office chairs; each for a different purpose. I liked standing for some things e.g. to watch a short video or to read an article or do some small work. Usually this activity is around 30 min but no longer than 1 hour. After 1 hour, I get tired of shifting legs and the back starts to get stiff. Even, if I could stand longer, for some activities I believe I prefer sitting e.g. watching a series or a movie or to read a book. I tried writing standing, but I just could not. I have to sit down for writing. I mentioned 2 chairs above; 1 of them was used to write blogs or if I was doing some long work that needs some writing on computer. The other chair was more for comfortable settings e.g. to watch a movie or read a book or just to listen to music. I have tried gym ball as well, but just could not work with it. My recent experiment in progress is with sitting on the floor. I tried couple of times and I realized in 10-15 min that I really lack flexibility in my lower back, calf muscles and hamstrings to really make an effective experiment. I hope this will motivate me to build flexibility and thus use more sitting position, as for 10 min I really liked it. My current setup now has multiple options available:

  • Sitting on floor to work with a specific small table.
  • to watch some short video while sitting, I have another table to have screen at the head level
  • A comfortable chair adjusted to height and recline to help write blogs.
  • I have another base that I can use to put my laptop, mouse and HDD to sit on a sofa to watch some series. This helps to keep the laptop properly ventilated.
  • In all cases, if my sitting experiment does not work ( I am using it with short stints with frequent breaks), then I have a regular table-chair setup to work. This however, I still need to adjust. 

Sadly, due to this new experiment, I had to get rid of one chair, as my room was becoming too crowded, thanks to ergonomics. If you earlier thought that my idea of interactive self-adjusting working table was far fetched, then now you know how I came to that idea.

I took an example of modern office space as it is more common scenario for ergonomics. However, it is valid for another cases as well. One common interaction that everyone has is with toilets. There have been many designed over time. Today generally they are categorized as western style toilets and Indian toilets. It is not that Indian toilets are used only in India. One can find their use in other Asian, middle east, African and some European countries as well. Ofcourse in the western world people find it strange when they come across Indian styled toilet. Similar was the situation when western toilets came to countries using Indian toilets. One of the main trouble is the person used to one style, does not understand the very first time how to use the other one. Ofcourse with westernization there is more and more usage of western toilets across the world. However, recently there is trend, ofcourse backed by studies, suggesting/recommending and promoting Indian toilets. The reason once again comes from ergonomics. Indian styled toilet has been tagged to have below benefits:

Apparently this is a big debate!

Helps in flexibility and mobility:

After all one does not need to go to an expensive Yoga class to learn how to sit in a squat position and flex those hip and knee joints, if one grows up with this toilet.

It can help improve digestion :

Apparently the squat posture helps in improving digestion by stretching the relevant organs and muscles.

It is eco friendly :

While the corporate world is sending mails with PS, ” please think before you print this email”, at the same time every day millions of paper rolls are washed down the toilet. Indian toilets are also supposed to use less water than normal western toilets per use.

It helps pregnant women :

This one is interesting as suggestion is that regular squatting helps pregnant women to exercise the relevant muscles that later helps to have smooth delivery. This is the same reason why mopping while sitting used to be preferred. Apparently some of the exercises in pregnancy classes include these posture and movements.

It makes defecation easy :

There are some claims that squatting position can help avoid colon cancer and other problems. However, there is a published study that suggests that squatting position helps in much easier defecation compare to sitting position. 

Both the time needed for sensation of satisfactory bowel emptying and the degree of subjectively assessed straining in the squatting position were reduced sharply in all volunteers compared with both sitting positions (P < 0.0001).

Well, I must say that like many things it is not just the fight among A vs B. There are some other struggles also about appropriate ergonomics of toilets within these main categories. The usual western toilet is provided only with paper to use. However, there is now a push to use water for cleaning. It is kind of a strange debate. There seems to be people who claim that using water is not clean, rather just paper is a better and clean choice. Interestingly after using paper to wipe their asses, they use water to clean their hands!! Now, lets say water is added to the ergonomics of the toilet. How to design the western toilet with water and paper is another debate. On one side there are integrated designs commonly available in India, Japan and other places. However, some toilets available on some airports or public places also have disintegrated flexible water jet available for use. On the contrary, there are 2 part toilets available in some countries; in this case person finishes his/her business on the main toilet then moves to the nearby another vessel fitted with a water jet for the rest of the cleaning. This, I did not know exists till I travelled to Italy. Maybe it exists in other parts of the world too who has so much place to fit 2 units in a single toilet.

In case like me, you were not aware. November 19th is World Toilet day!

I hope, I could make my point about weirdness of human species while using the perspective of ergonomics. Afterall, is there any other species who is so confused about sitting, walking or defecating? I know there are schools for certain professions where they learn how to smile and how to laugh. I hope it does not come to the point, where kids has to go to schools and learn how to smile and laugh only to discover later that there is an ongoing confusion and war among various school about the best way to laugh. Be present, open your mind to possibilities, get rid yourself of the various restrains and laugh your heart out just like a child.

Keep Smiling

Love

Arundeep Singh

A man and wife checked in at a resort hotel. After cleaning up, the lady forgot to turn off the faucets in the bathroom. Half an hour later, Mulla Nasrudin, the guest in the room directly under them, opened his window, stuck out his head and called upstairs to attract their attention. “Hey, you up there!” shouted the Mulla. The man upstairs opened his window and stuck out his head. “What’s the matter?” he asked. “Turn off those faucets in your bathroom!” demanded Nasrudin. “It’s pouring down here. What’s the matter with you? You must be a dope.” He ended his tirade with a wild outburst of profanity. “Wait a minute,” said the man upstairs. “Stop your cursing. I have got a lady up here.” “WHAT DO YOU THINK I HAVE GOT DOWN HERE,” yelled Nasrudin, “A DUCK?”

Leave a Reply