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Ergonomic Engineering

Comfy? Making life more comfortable for others is the perfect way to make life more comfortable for yourself

By Eric Luchman

Picture yourself in two years. You've landed that great job and just bought yourself a shiny new SUV. You cruise down the highway, ready to show off your new truck to your out-of-work friends. Resting comfortably (because of your state-of-the-art lumbar support) you adjust your driver's side mirror by barely lifting a finger off of your armrest. And since your six-disc CD player is voice-activated, all you have to do is ask for a song change as you weave through traffic.

A nice fantasy, isn't it? And maybe if you luck-out during the current economic slump and land a top job, it will come true. But what if daydreaming about those luxuries could help you land a high-paying job that will ultimately allow you to purchase such comforts for yourself? After all, the luxury in your fantasy vehicle is the result of the hard work of engineers just like you. As an ergonomic engineer, you could be the person who helps make everyday life easier to maneuver for everyone.

Ergonomic Engineering in the Workplace

Ergonomic engineering (EE) impacts everyday life, from the workplace to the home. Andris Freivalds, Ph.D., at the department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering at Pennsylvania State University, focuses on the workplace aspect of EE. He describes ergonomic engineering as "designing both work and the workplace to increase the efficiency and productivity of the worker. And, more importantly, to improve worker's health and safety."

According to the International Ergonomics Association, EE is "a science that applies knowledge of human physical and mental abilities to the design of products, processes, workplaces and complex human technology." Looking at how EE impacts the workplace, future engineers could contribute to the design and assessment of workplaces across the country. "Ergonomic engineering typically focuses on the evaluation and design of workplaces, where both the physical (such as lifting, repetitive motion, lighting, noise and energy expanded) and the cognitive (such as perception, attention, decision making and motor control) operate," says Jacqueline Mozrall, department head of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Rochester Institute of Technology.

Freivalds' students at Penn State address workplace issues by reducing repetitive strain injuries as well as physical problems. In fact, with today's advancements in the field of ergonomics, labor-intensive workplaces could be a problem of the past.

Making Home More Comfortable

Ergonomic engineering not only has a big impact on the workplace, it studies and designs products suitable for the home as well. "Ergonomic engineering focuses on the design and evaluation of consumer products with respect to usability," says Mozrall. Physical issues-like the force required to open something or the space required to place fingers-are all addressed, as well as the design of display controls and instructions of products, explains Mozrall. EE helps improve everyday products, including printers, copiers, camera interfaces and computer software.

Alan Hedge, director of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory at Cornell University, says that ergonomic engineering influences not only how people use products, but how they buy them as well. "Ergonomic designs focus on maximizing the usability of products. This means understanding what the users expect the product to do, what the user is best capable of doing to use the product, how the product can be designed to reduce errors and how the product can be designed to boost comfort and performance."

Some products that are in the market that were designed by ergonomic engineers include Fingerworks' [] new Multi-Touch gesture keyboards and pointing devices, which might make you feel like throwing out your mouse. These device allow users to create commands on your computer screen just by motioning with your fingers.

Another example is Human Scales' Freedom Chair, which conforms to the user's shape. It has won eight international design awards since its development by designer Niels Diffrient.

The Samsonite Silhouette travel bag is designed to help airline passengers and others to move through narrow aisles. This piece of luggage is also designed to move passengers quicker through baggage check points with its see-through compartment, as well as create easy of use for taller passengers by providing longer extending handles.

Entering the EE Field

If you decide the ergonomic engineering field is right for you, you may just find yourself in the company of specialists from various fields. Nurses, doctors, psychologists and production workers have all been known to enter this up-and-coming field. In fact, even though it's called ergonomic engineering, only about 20% of those entering the field have an engineering background, according to Hedge. Therefore, students looking to combine their engineering background with other interests may find this field appealing. From designing better interfaces for software programs to making medical equipment easier to use, you can surely bring your engineering background to many companies.

Now that you know a little bit about the field of EE, you might be wondering what are your chances of landing a job in this exciting field? And if you do, how much will you get paid? (Will it be enough to afford that new 4Runner?) Mozrall says that each year companies are beginning to better understanding the value that EEs bring and therefore, the numbers of job opportunities are increasing.

She also says that as "products and interfaces [e.g., PDAs and cell phones] continue to increase in complexity and as competition between companies increases-ergonomic engineers are becoming more and more crucial to product success."

But others see ergonomic engineering as holding steady for now.

Dr. Andris Freivalds doesn't see EE careers skyrocketing anytime soon.

He describes the job climate as only lukewarm. "A couple of years ago, especially with the forthcoming OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) Ergonomic Standard, there was a demand for ergonomic engineers. Now with the rescinding of the standard and the downturn in the economy, the job market has become tighter."

But Morzall adds that despite the economy, many companies are still hiring ergonomic engineers and will continue to hire more as the economy comes back around. "I know of one company where the only places they are hiring is in their ergonomics group," says Morzall.

Starting salaries are varied and based upon one's academic degrees. With a non-technical B.S., students will earn $30,000, with an engineering degree $50,000, with a technical masters degree $60,000 and for Ph.D., from $70,000 to $90,000. Manufacturing companies such as Eastman Kodak, Ford and IBM are examples of those who hire ergonomic engineers.

So there you have it. An engineering job with a little versatility. There is no pigeonholing in ergonomics-from health care to electronics, from automotives to the workplace to the home-everyone can be a little more comfortable because of you, and that's a good feeling. Freivalds adds, "An ergonomist will have the satisfaction of helping workers, in reducing health and safety problems, and in doing good in terms of moral and ethical considerations."

Eric Luchman is a free-lance writer based in North Carolina.

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