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Industrial and systems engineering professor devotes career to creating healthier environments

Pete Shooner and Jeff Zidonis | Jun 6, 2016
Diana Schwerha
Photo by Ashley Stottlemyer

Industrial and systems engineering professor devotes career to creating healthier environments

Pete Shooner and Jeff Zidonis | Jun 6, 2016

Photo by Ashley Stottlemyer

As a master’s student at West Virginia University, Associate Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering Diana Schwerha’s research was funded through a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) training program. Twenty years later, she’s leading not only her own NIOSH-funded occupational safety training project – but also Russ College ISE master’s students while they gaining hands-on experience to make the world a more efficient, safer place.

“We work in this world where we think about efficiencies constantly, so we want to create efficiencies that are then safer for a person,” Schwerha says. “If I can improve a process in a way that reduces the risk of a physical injury, or reduces cognitive load, or the individual doesn’t burn out – that’s going to make it better for everybody.”

The NIOSH training program grant, which was recently renewed for an additional five years with a nearly $600,000 award, involves a four-semester program for graduate students that includes on-campus and industry internships, specific coursework, and professional activities.

Students also work in Schwerha’s Human Factors and Ergonomics Lab, where they learn how to maximize the compatibility between people, processes, and products for improved safety, performance, and user satisfaction – work that touches almost every part of daily life.

For example, Schwerha says, the shape of an office worker’s chair or the height of a desk are influenced by the study of ergonomics, but so is the way a computer’s operating system is designed.

“Signage, colors, contrasts, size of font – it’s all human factors,” Schwerha explains. “Even though a student might not have any idea what the word means, they’ve experienced tens of things even before getting to class that involved human factors and ergonomics. It’s everywhere.”

Schwerha is also leading a two-year, $245,000 grant from the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation (BWC) in which she and students like ISE master’s student Alyssa Boudinot are focused on documenting the benefit from integrating safety into process improvement metrics and manufacturing.

“We’ve been going out to different safety council meetings and individual companies to conduct our research,” Boudinot says. “It's really a great opportunity to meet safety professionals in the field and see how different companies work.”

Schwerha continues to advise students in the American Society of Safety Engineers and the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), which has seen exponential growth in recent years thanks to increased student outreach and initiatives like the “SWEsters” mentoring program that pairs upperclassmen with freshman women.

“We’re building an infrastructure of support in this college for women,” Schwerha says. “The fact that they can relate to each other and support each other is really significant in terms of keeping them in the college.”

Schwerha says the professional experiences like those her master’s students gain through their research, and the personal networking available through groups like SWE, make students more well-rounded upon graduation, which is vital to success in today’s diverse world.

“If you get a good solid foundation, you can do so many things,” Schwerha says. “The idea is to give you a skillset where you have a lot of opportunities and a lot of choices, not to give you a skillset that’s really narrow – because that’s not how the world works.”

This article originally appeared in the 2015-16 issue of Ingenuity, the Russ College’s alumni magazine.