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New Technologies and the Ergonomic Risk to Users

Are new technologies part of a technology nirvana or newly identified ergonomics risk factors?

We have entered the modern world of new communication devices, microtechnologies and nanotechnologies. A new challenge has arisen out of these technologies: the ergonomic challenge to the technology users.

Companies are investing in the new technology and communication infrastructures for better productivity and quality. These technologies allow for the sharing of information from one facility or employee to another with clear and concise communication that reduce errors.

Development of a corporate culture and shared values can facilitate the adoption of such technologies and communication and investment in advanced technologies may produce the anticipated results. However, employees might become overloaded and intimidated by the need to be in constant contact with others, causing unnecessary stress.

The Spread of Technology

Lost anywhere in the United States with nothing but a camera phone? You now are able to snap a picture of a nearby building or monument, send the photo to a database and soon receive a map and information about where you are. Increasingly sophisticated mobile phones are becoming popular devices to use for search for directions and other information. Easier still is the global positioning system (GPS), portable devices or software that can be installed in PDAs and phones or into vehicles. The problem with GPS is that you unknowingly can be tracked. Some companies track the movements of their employees for efficiency purposes or just plain “spying.” This could cause increased stress for employees.

PDA-like cell phones used by many professionals offer a host of functions: e-mail, text messaging and Web browsing, among them. They were purchased by 16 million people worldwide in 2004; 4 million more than traditional PDAs. More than 2.2 million people have bought a BlackBerry since they came on the market, helping it to corner the top end of the wireless communications market. There were 200 million total phones sold globally in 2006.

The proliferation of broadband has more users moving more data across more networks. All that motion has made users come to expect the ability to connect from anywhere at any time in any country.

The Risks of Technology

The physical cost of such technology can be high, however. More and more cases of “BlackBerry thumbs,” repetitive motion injuries and awkward posture risk factors are found in our fast-paced, multitasking society.

John Napier said, “The hand without a thumb is at worst nothing but an animated spatula and at best a pair of forceps whose points don’t meet properly.” The prime importance of the thumb is well-shown in compensation schemes for its injury. In AD 616, King Aethelbert in England established the equivalent of a 30 percent compensation for loss of a thumb but only 10 percent for loss of a finger. Things are not greatly changed today, although total loss of a thumb now rates as a 40 percent loss of the hand. The total loss of an index or long finger is only 20 percent of the hand.

The thumb is designed to flex and rotate in all directions, and it works differently from the fingers. Thumbs are designed as stabilizers for pinch gripping with a finger. That is why you only have two of them. It is the fingers that have dexterity, not the thumbs and the thumbs are not used to repetitive forceful movements.

Doctors in the United States and United Kingdom claim repetitive use could cause arthritis or harm tendons in the thumb. The earliest symptom of joint arthritis is pain with activities that involve pinch grips. When we use the hand-held communication devices, we grip them. Pain when opening jars, doorknobs, car doors and turning keys are symptoms that might occur after prolonged text messaging or using small devices.

Prolonged or heavy use of the thumb may produce an aching discomfort at the base of the thumb. Changes in the weather may produce similar symptoms. These could be the beginning of joint arthritis. When this occurs, pinch strength diminishes, activity-related swelling may develop and later, any motion of the thumb, even without stress, may become painful. Eventually the joint begins to appear enlarged and out of place. This is usually accompanied by limited thumb motion.

Often, the most difficult maneuver is pulling the thumb away from the hand, which we do to reach around an object or hold a hand-held device. In severe cases, the thumb metacarpal collapses into the palm and other joints may assume an abnormal position to permit a wider grasp.

The supplicating postures the users’ assume when grasping the 6-ounce BlackBerry between their palms and thumb-tapping messages on its QWERTY keyboard are leading to several musculoskeletal or ergonomic risk factors. The thumb, hand and neck postures when assuming the “prayer” position to use the devices places these body parts in static and awkward postures.

Repetitions and forces are higher than acceptable while using the text messaging functions on wireless devices and are creating the “BlackBerry thumb,” because users tend to type much faster by pecking out messages with their thumbs. Many people soon learn to type as many as 40 words a minute with their thumbs, thumbs which are not designed for forceful, repetitive motions like typing.

Visual ergonomic risk factors are another potential hazard from PDAs and stem from looking at a small screen under poor lighting conditions with small font character sizes. Lighting also might affect the ability to see and could create glare, causing eye strain.

A concerned employer will train employees regarding risk factors and how to properly use and key into small devices. Sharing the anatomical and physiologic body responses with employees also will be of value, so they can completely understand the risk factors and their body responses. Stressing the importance of resting and avoiding continuous use of the devices for long stretches without rest breaks, and refraining from gardening, knitting or other hand intensive tasks when not working, also is important.


The technology to send voices over data lines is revolutionizing the telephone industry. On the Internet, voices are just another form of data, and employees might begin using their voices more than normal, causing inflammation and irritation of the larynx. This also might cause a thickening of the vocal chords, commonly known as laryngitis, which could cause a lack of speech vocalization in the short term. This ergonomic risk factor will reduce the ability to communicate and defeat the company’s goal of sharing data.

A new type of answering machine that features a “Bubble board,” which displays the messages in floating bubbles on a touch-screen monitor with the caller’s picture incorporated inside, can create new ergonomic challenges. Unlike current answering machines that play messages in chronological order, the Bubble board allows the user to choose whose message to hear first by touching the caller’s message bubble. This new technology might lead to excessive stress on the finger while pushing the Bubble board or might induce awkward postures while answering or reading messages.

Top managers and the developers of technology must include ergonomics in the cognitive and user interface functionality of products, and in the beginning of the products’ physical designs to ensure a seamless interface and the intuitiveness of the product.

Automotive Technologies

New developments in automotive technology are leading to safer vehicles and more user-friendly technology interfaces.

A dashboard finger scanner could prevent thousands of car injuries each year by fine-tuning crash restraint systems to a passenger’s bone density. The ultrasound scanner, developed by researchers at Cranfield Impact Research Centre (CIRC) and Nissan Technical Centre Europe, both in the United Kingdom, assesses an individual’s tolerance to injury, allowing a vehicle’s onboard computer to adjust the force applied by their seatbelts and airbags.

Smart seatbelts already can let out slack when under excessive strain, to prevent a passenger suffering injuries such as rib and sternum (chest) fractures. But not everyone can withstand the same amount of force. Drivers and passengers with brittle bones are particularly at risk, so artificially intelligent (AI) microsensor seat belts eventually will drive our seat belt restraint systems, keeping drivers and passengers safe.

This same AI smart technology can be used to develop more comfortable seats for cars, trucks and planes. It is about time a product was introduced that enabled drivers of different heights and limb lengths to perfectly adjust their location within their seat.

Manufacturers already are working on adjustable foot pedals. Ford has introduced a power-adjustable pedal. This wonderful feature (that comes as part of a package in some Ford products or can be added for $120) enables the driver to control the foot pedal cluster. The movement of the cluster is controlled by a switch inside the passenger compartment, similar to one that would power the windows.

This increased safety/ergonomic feature was developed because U.S. federal safety regulators have opened an investigation into adjustable brake and accelerator pedals on more than 400,000 sedans after complaints that the pedals were built too close together. It is too bad we are a reactive society, because if we paid attention to our ergonomics product design and the intended user anthropometries, we could save our companies money.

(Think this technology is new? Think again! If you’d attended an auto show in 1910, you might have seen a crowd gathered around to observe a demonstration of the latest advancement in auto/human interface: adjustable pedals. The 1908 American Simplex was a car with adjustable pedals, but we have no record of which manufacturer made the adjustable pedals.)

Nano and Micro Risks

What are the challenges of miniatur-ization beyond the level of micro technologies? One issue is when to stop investing in the current micro technologies, which can be taken down to the nano scale. Miniaturization of microelectronics will probably be able to take the size of a transistor down to 30 nanometers. The next issue would be how to take the transistor size down to 5 nanometers, for which entirely new concepts would be needed.

In microelectronics, the goal has been to make things smaller, faster and cheaper. What happens to employees? Working in the micro and nano worlds present a whole new set of ergonomics challenges.
Safety, health and environmental professionals should develop safeguards to protect workers from nanoparticles that could enter their bloodstreams or lungs. According to American Society of Safety Engineers member Robert Adams, CIH, CSP, occupational safety, health and environmental (SHE) professionals in the nanotechnology industry should “proactively develop safety practices to protect workers from nanoparticle exposure.” He recommended that “SHE professionals continue to utilize and improve upon safety and risk management programs in addition to providing necessary personal protective equipment and localized exhaust ventilation systems to reduce the build up of nanoparticles in the workplace.”

As the number of nanotechnology businesses grow, more research and data is needed to understand potential health effects to workers. Adams advised that “nanoparticles could be absorbed into the bloodstream and brain through skin contact or inhalation through the lungs, but the specific health effects are not yet known.”

Organizations such as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) are conducting studies, but it could be years before any long-term effects are determined.
Hopefully, the tools designed for application of these new technologies will be designed with people in mind.

What Does It All Mean?

A new study shows that one-third of Americans are chronically overworked – and even more feel over overwhelmed and stressed by their jobs. We know in the short run that if you feel overworked, you are more resentful and angry and make more mistakes. In the long run, we’re talking about the effects of new technologies on health.

With the advent of new technologies and their acceptance into a variety of industries, ergonomics assists in creating specifications for designs that “fit” the end users. Ergonomics helps create appropriate training modalities for learning new technologies. Ergonomics can impact work organization by adding to efficiency and reducing errors and waste. Ergonomics can identify risk factors to reduce workers’ compensation, disability costs and lost work time costs. Ergonomics leads to the design of workstations and accessories that are comfortable, and helps create new designs for products, equipment and tools that enhance productivity.

Cynthia Roth is president and CEO of Ergonomics Technologies Corp. (http://www.ergoworld.com, an ergonomics and training firm based in New York.

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