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Dash it all! Let’s talk ergonomics.

When I was in my teens a friend of mine had a Saab 900 Turbo. It was very black, very shiny and it made my old faded VW seem like; well like I’d scraped together my meagre earnings as a student and bought the first set of wheels that I’d chanced upon.

We all went round for the obligatory spin and the guided tour of the car’s features. As well as alloy wheels, electric windows (gasp) and lots of digits in chrome on the boot lid, it had an ergonomic dashboard, which, the TV advert informed us, was the exact one they used on a Swedish fighter jet. All the controls you could possibly need, and some you probably never would, were immediately to hand, all there at his fingertips. I was smitten and very painfully jealous. Science and art in perfect harmony, form and function, the holiest of holy grails.

These days of course I realize that this revolutionary piece of design history was little more than a gimmick, the dashboard merely curved ever so slightly towards the driver. Big deal!

But, maybe it really was a big deal? Until then dashboards on cars were flat, linear affairs that housed some buttons, switches and slidey things that you attempted to locate, then reach and operate, without careering off the road and fatally head-butting the plastic sideboard in front of you. My smug friend could reach all the controls of his Saab without leaning all the way into the passenger seat and therefore he drove in comfort and style with the minimum effort or strain. “It’s your Ergonomics you see”. Yes I saw. Suddenly my flat dash with a clothes peg holding the choke lever out didn’t seem so hot. No wonder I was single.

Almost inevitably all this glamour went to his head, resulting in his thinking he was a taller Tom Cruise and he ended up landing it in a drainage ditch after unofficially buzzing the control tower. Predictably his Dad took the keys from him and the young Mav was demoted back to his own humble Citroen Dyane… Aha! Now there’s a masterpiece of French practical design; a fabulous, comfortable ride for – those of us with the thermal characteristics of a polar bear, short legs, a spinal column made from plasticine, short arms and a sense of balance that would shame a particularly nimble Ibex.

Ergonomics is a term that is batted around by people when talking about any interaction we have with seemingly any thing. So therefore isn’t everything ergonomic as soon as we go near it, by its very nature?

The word ergonomics comes from the Greek word ergon meaning work, and nomoi meaning natural laws. It is the science of refining the design of products to optimize them for human use. But over the years it has come to relate more specifically to the work environments that we live with, and how we can adapt them to our specific requirements.

Perhaps Swedish fighter planes’ cockpit dashboards no longer have a slight curve to them (I have no idea if indeed they ever did) but they do now have heads up digital display which means the pilot doesn’t have to take his eyes away from looking forward. Very handy I’m sure when travelling at nearly two and a half times the speed of sound, and something that I’m certain my friend’s dad would have considered as a practical upgrade all those years ago, as he paid to have the Saab’s front suspension replaced.

The University of Chicago’s Environmental Health and Safety department states that “Ergonomics focuses on the work environment and items such as the design and function of workstations, controls, displays, safety devices, tools and lighting to fit the employee’s physical requirements, capabilities and limitations to ensure his/her health and well being. It may include restructuring or changing workplace conditions to reduce stressors that cause musculoskeletal disorders.”

In other words; “To avoid discomfort and possible injury, use ergonomics to adapt your work station to fit you.” Simple enough, especially if you are a Swedish car manufacturer.

It’s fair to say that most of us spend a large proportion of our time at work, and often sitting down at a desk of some sort for long periods of time. That means if we aren’t working in an ergonomic environment, the chances are we are not as comfortable as we should be. Or worse we’re potentially causing issues due to bad posture, brought about by bad ergonomics such as repetitive strain injuries and other musculoskeletal disorders, which can develop over time and can lead to long-term disability.

Human factors and ergonomics is concerned with the “fit” between the user, equipment and their environments. The way we work and what affect it has on us.

Years ago I worked in a busy, very stressful office environment with Chris, an irreplaceable member of the team. He was unfortunately a martyr to his back problems and some days he would hunch over his desk, pain etched on his usually happy face. He enjoyed sports and keeping fit but his beloved five-a-side football had given way to a cocktail of ever-changing painkillers, pilates, and aqua-aerobic low impact Nicaraguan yogavation. OK I may have made the last one up, but you get the picture. Here is a man who’s resigned himself to; at worse a life of severe discomfort, or at best irritating aches and pains and he tolerated them simply because he thought it was part of getting older.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We sourced a proper ergonomic chair for him from Ergochair in Yate near Bristol. They also provided expert help in setting up his workstation properly and ergonomically. The change was incredible. Chris was soon back to being his usual industrious happy self, and once again playing something like the formidable defender that he’d always imagined himself to have been in his youth.

Ergonomics is something that we’ve all heard about, but how many of us really explore it to get the best ‘fit’ for our requirements? We owe it to ourselves to be as comfortable as possible when we work and therefore perform to our best and to look after our health for our futures.

It’s probably also worth mentioning at this point that Chris’ work buddy Don was twice his age and did no physical activity at all, apart from a gentle nightly wander to his local pub, leaving his battered old Saab at home on the drive.