Indiana University Research & Creative Activity


Volume XXIX Number 2
Spring 2007

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A 3-D motion capture system collects information on wrist and finger movements that may be useful in reducing repetitive motion injuries incurred by pianists.
Photo by Bill Wyatt

Better Motion by Design

by Tracy James

On the surface, the Indiana Ergonomics Laboratory has a cluttered feel to it, filled with metal shelving, towering video cameras, assorted high-tech equipment, and a simulated, albeit temporary, automotive assembly line (goopy yellow automotive grease included). It seems too small, and it certainly isn’t fancy, but the output of this new laboratory, located in the Indiana University Research Park in downtown Bloomington, is innovative and far-reaching.

John Shea, director of the ergonomics program and chair of the Department of Kinesiology in IU Bloomington’s School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, describes a research program that has a symbiotic relationship with Indiana businesses and companies nationwide. The lab helps companies stay in business by designing tasks to promote performance and reduce workplace injuries and accidents. Shea says ergonomics is a maturing field that challenges researchers and students, some of whom come from industry and the military, to think creatively and across disciplines. IU’s Jacobs School of Music, the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences, and the modern dance program in the Department of Kinesiology have worked with the lab on projects, while the lab has utilized rapid prototyping equipment housed in the IU Cyclotron facility and IUB’s School of Fine Arts to develop its ergonomically designed equipment.

The ergonomics program often attracts students because of its applied nature, Shea says, “then launches them into doctoral studies because of their fascination with the underlying science.” That’s the path on which Bill Wyatt now finds himself.

Wyatt, who is currently completing a master’s degree in ergonomics, will soon begin a doctoral program studying motor control. Initially a music major, Wyatt knew of ergonomics only as a generic term, but his interests began to shift when he interned with lab researchers working with a local fire department to reduce injuries related to lifting objects off trucks. Shea then piqued Wyatt’s curiosity with applications of the “speed-accuracy trade off,” or Fitts’ law, a model of human movement now applied to studies of human-computer interaction.

In the ergonomics lab, Wyatt is able to use computer assisted design, the lab’s sophisticated 3-D video motion analysis system, and an intense computer software program called JACK to conduct computer simulations of tasks in a fraction of the time it would take to conduct similar research with real people and objects.

“You really have to know a little bit about a lot,” he says, adding that there are no guarantees that a company or its employees will embrace ergonomic solutions. “That’s the million-dollar question, how do you get employee and employer buy-in?”

Take the case of Ford, for example. Shea says the lab’s research offered several suggestions for reducing shoulder injuries related to assembling the rack-and-pinion steering system. The lab studies found, for instance, that long-time employees who suffered no injuries assembled the housing differently than the engineers thought. The IU researchers suggested training that incorporated the different technique. The Ford engineers considered this solution but instead, the company opted for another suggestion, redesigning the housing.

Many ergonomics programs are offered in engineering schools, which IU does not have, so shortly after coming to Bloomington six years ago, Shea began IU’s ergonomics program as one of only a few in the country linked to a kinesiology degree. The staples of kinesiology--the study of motor control, exercise psychology, exercise physiology, and biomechanics--are critical to ergonomics research, he points out.

While ergonomics traditionally examines how tasks can be adjusted to suit workers, IU expands this paradigm to include wellness issues, such as obesity. Sleep apnea, for example, is associated with obesity and can cause workers to fall asleep or experience drowsiness on the job, which can lead to accidents. The Department of Kinesiology’s Updyke Center for Physical Activity has a multimillion-dollar contract with rail-transportation giant CSX Corp. to reduce employee health risks, reduce medical care costs, and improve employee health. The ergonomics lab is playing a part in this work by conducting research on fatigue and the effect shift work has on performance.

Shea calls the hefty burden of employee injuries, including insurance, litigation, and workers’ compensation claims, “a national crisis.” Costs associated with employee injuries are a major source of employer expense and can literally put companies out of business. For example, Shea notes that 32 percent (approximately 705,000 cases annually) of reported workplace injuries are from overexertion or repetitive motion. Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. recently reported that musculoskeletal disorders in the workplace cost employers between $125 and $155 billion in 1998, the last year for which data is available. Liberty Mutual also reported that the majority of business executives estimate a return of $3 or more for each $1 invested in improving workplace safety.

“Our work in the ergonomics lab has great societal importance,” says Shea. “We can’t afford to have U.S. companies going under.”

Tracy James is a media relations specialist for the Indiana University Office of Media Relations and a freelance writer living in Bloomington.