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Ergonomics a growing field as workplaces grow more complex

August 3, 2010

During World War II, airplane pilots weren't only struggling with live ammunition coming their way. They were stymied by cockpit designs that created an environment disposed to pilot error (such as confusing the configuration of control knobs in aircraft cockpits), which sometimes led to catastrophic results. From these and earlier experiences, the study of ergonomics (or human factors) began to develop with a flourish, focusing on the design of jobs, equipment, and workplaces built to fit the needs of the worker.

During WWII, airplane cockpits designs were not built to fit the needs of the pilot , leading to catastrophic errors.

Workplace design for all settings

“Ergonomics is not just making sure someone sitting behind a desk has a good chair and proper alignment of their arms with their keyboard,” said John Rosecrance, a professor in the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences and director of the Ergonomics Graduate Program. “It involves workplace design in factories and farm settings, high-tech offices and low-tech manufacturers, airports, retail shops, and everything in between.”

Interdisciplinary program

Ergonomics as practiced in the workplace seeks to reduce injury and illness while increasing productivity and improving quality. In the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences, ergonomics is a growing field and the department has established an interdisciplinary Ergonomics Training Program open to students with backgrounds in:

  • psychology
  • environmental health
  • industrial hygiene
  • engineering
  • occupational health fields
  • other areas of study

Three levels of ergonomic training available include the master’s level, doctoral level, and an occupational ergonomics certificate program.

The Ergonomics Graduate Program has ongoing research projects with local companies including breweries, dairies, construction firms, and others..

Analyze work processes

“One can easily imagine some of the problems workplaces face by thinking about work activities in our own homes,” said Rosecrance.

“Imagine if every time you sat down for a meal and then cleared the dishes, you stacked the dishes on the floor, then someone picked them up from the floor and put them in the dishwasher, then took them out of the dishwasher and stacked them back on the floor. That is the sort of work method we often see in many manufacturing facilities. That type of work process leads to a sore back, takes longer to complete and, because you are handling the product (dishes) so much, leads to a greater chance of dirty as well as broken dishes.

“Through the application of ergonomic principles, we can help owners and workers improve their work environments while at the same time increasing productivity and quality measures. That’s how we sell ergonomics.”

Students work with outside companies and experts

Associate Professor John Rosecrance, right, and students on an ergonomics site visit.

Rosecrance and his graduate students work cooperatively with companies to implement organizational change and collaborate with experts to help plans become realities. Experts involved with ergonomic studies at the ERHS include:

  • occupational health psychologists
  • biomedical engineers
  • public health workers
  • epidemiologists

Research work and workplace application is conducted as per client request but also through government agencies and private funding. The Ergonomics Graduate Program has ongoing research projects with local Fort Collins companies including breweries, dairies, construction firms, and others.

Four major goals

In the ERHS Ergonomics Graduate Program, the focus is on three major industries: manufacturing, construction, and agriculture. Rosecrance said four goals within those areas include:

  • injury prevention and wellness
  • work efficiency
  • quality of product or services
  • quality of work life for the employees

The milking parlor of a large dairy operation.

“In terms of our research expertise, it involves the assessment of exposures to risk factors that can lead to injury or illness,” said Rosecrance.

“These exposures may include work methods that involve forceful muscle contractions, highly repetitive movements, or awkward postures. If we look at the poultry or red meat processing industry, for example, we see exposure to all of these risk factors with jobs that involve eviscerating, cutting, trimming, deboning, sorting, packaging, and lifting.”

Active research, pilot project funding

All core faculty involved in the Ergonomics Graduate Program have active research programs that are funded from a variety of external sources. Graduate students are eligible to compete for pilot research project funding through several centers at Colorado State University including the CDC-funded Colorado Injury Prevention Research Center, the NIOSH-funded High Plains Center for Agricultural Health and Safety, and the NIOSH-funded Mountain and Plains Education and Research Center.

Article originally published in the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences Emitter newsletter, Summer 2010.