Research Communications

Engineer Diana Schwerha examines how ergonomics can improve the lives of older people in the workplace and home 

May 17, 2010

Diana Schwerha knows that people think ergonomics is just about posture: Sitting up straight at your computer desk so your back doesn’t ache. Holding your hands correctly as you type so you don’t get carpal tunnel syndrome. But, as it turns out, it’s much more than that.

“Ergonomics is all about compatibility,” she says. “It’s the compatibility between job demands and an individual’s abilities. We seek to reduce the risk of injury, improve worker performance, and increase user satisfaction and happiness. A good intervention does all of that.”

Diana Schwerha

Ergonomics is not just about physical factors, says Schwerha, an assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering at Ohio University. Ergonomics also takes into account cognitive factors—for instance, having to learn a new task in the middle of distracting office activity—and psychosocial factors, such as stress, time pressures, and feelings of loss of control over one’s job.

One focus of Schwerha’s work is improving working conditions for older workers and retaining older workers on the job. Schwerha says that older workers face multiple challenges. “Older people are perceived as being short-timers, and so they’re not given the same training opportunities as younger workers, and their skills can deteriorate,” she says.

But, she adds, studies have shown that people’s cognitive abilities don’t deteriorate significantly until they are beyond traditional retirement ages. Older workers are valuable because they are the institutional memory of any organization, Schwerha says. They also can be more efficient than younger workers, she explains: “Older workers might be able to do in 25 hours what younger workers would take 40 hours to do.”

Schwerha and colleagues recently conducted a study that found that older workers were less likely than younger workers to leave their jobs, mainly because they like their jobs. However, being short-staffed and having to endure time pressures, stress, and loss of control made older workers more likely to quit.

“I believe this is because they realize the (dangerous) implications of employees being rushed or understaffed,” Schwerha says. The study also identified risk factors that make workers of all ages physically and mentally tired, which affects employee and client safety.

In order to retain older workers, she says, employers need to provide organizational and management support. They should provide adequate staffing and flexible scheduling, reduce excessive time demands, and look at physical ergonomics issues, such as providing better lighting or redesigning physically demanding jobs.

Before coming to Ohio University, Schwerha was an associate research fellow at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health  in Pittsburgh, Pa. She and several of her colleagues received the 2009 Alice Hamilton Award for Excellence in Occupational Health and Safety, Educational Materials Category, for their work on Successful Aging for Miners through Ergonomics. The training program teaches employers how to modify their workplaces to alleviate fatigue and health issues for older miners. “For instance, Schwerha says, “a task could be redesigned to be less demanding on the worker from a physiological perspective. Or a lifting task could be redesigned to be less strenuous by changing the packaging or redesigning the work process.”

One cutting-edge  focus of Schwerha’s work is “aging in place,” or helping older people live independently at home, which encompasses many different factors. Her new study examines the age-related changes in the musculoskeletal system that affect balance. “Part of ergonomics is modifying the home to adapt to older people’s changing abilities, such as designing bathrooms so they can safely function there without falls,” she says. But ergonomics also seeks to ensure that systems, such as transportation and communication, are in place to facilitate overall health.

“If they lose the ability to drive, all of a sudden their contacts get cut off,” she says. “They need to remain social so they don’t get depressed.” If older people get depressed, they are less likely to eat healthy foods and exercise, and their health deteriorates.

Reports from the Scripps Center for Gerontology warn that nursing home care is 2.3 times as expensive as home-based health care, Schwerha says, so making it possible for older people to stay in their homes (where they want to be anyway), “would be a huge cost savings for the state. Hundreds of millions of dollars a year, potentially.” Schwerha has also received a grant from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to conduct a usability study for the Web sites of the Ohio Association of Area Agencies on Aging.

In the future, Schwerha is interested in creating products for older people. She cites Jitterbug cell phones, with their large, bright buttons and simplified functioning, as an example of a product that works well for older people. As the baby boomers age, she envisions Web browsers, e-mail systems—even BlackBerries—all designed with the older user in mind. “I think there’s a lot of room for product design,” she says. “It’s not about more features—it’s about matching their needs. It’s all about compatibility.”

by Karen Sottosanti

Editor’s Note: A version of this story will appear in the Spring/Summer 2010 issue of Perspectives magazine.