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Eliminating Discomfort & Risk through Ergonomic Design

Ergonomics is the process of minutely observing people in their working and living environments, to then make these environments healthier, safer and more comfortable as well as aesthetic. Simply put, it is to understand and improve the interactions of humans with the other elements of the system that they occupy. Ergonomics strives to bridge the gap between man and his surroundings. This science aims to eliminate discomfort and risk of injury due to elements in work and living spaces.

By Dr Deepankar

An ergonomist designs and modifies spaces inhabited by people to fit the people, not the other way around. Their comfort, health, preferences, and spatial needs, in general, determine the course of designing the infrastructure if interior designing is undertaken ergonomically.

Home
It’s only recently that the practical applications of ergonomic intuition have been applied to the process of designing the home. More than work, it is our homes we look to for ultimate comfort. Home is where you routinely engage in rest, recreation, and raising your family. Ergonomically-minded interior designers construct living spaces that are not only ‘easier’ to live in, but by virtue of this ease, actually facilitate ‘happier’ living in the home.

Interior designing, when subscribing to the principle of ergonomics, includes designing the furniture and appliances as well as the environment itself. The furnishings, equipment, and the general systems and layout of the home must be as convenient to use as possible and minimalise the physical strain or load on the body, with low chances of injuring the homeowner. A good interior designer also works to improve the lighting and temperature, to create a pleasant atmosphere.

Let’s look into some living spaces that can benefit from ergonomically conscious interior designing.

Bathroom
From positioning the bath and shower taps for the most comfort to making cabinets more accessible; from installing exhaust fans to placing towels within easy reach; from keeping room between the shower and the toilet to raising the height of the vanities (mirror, sink, wall cabinet, etc.); home ergonomics acutely studies all these factors. It offers a cumulative solution so that homes can have the most comfortable bathrooms.

Kitchen
The kitchen, an area with the highest utility as well as the most numerous and complex equipment, should be foremost in an ergonomic interior designer’s considerations for safety, ease-of-use, and navigable layout. In fact, the kitchen work triangle is the most researched and applied of all the ergonomic principles. This principle involves situating the three most used work sites – the refrigerator, sink, and the stove/oven – at the most efficient distance from one another to minimise traffic through the work zone.

Besides, the best height for the kitchen cabinet is three feet. In terms of appliances, many ergonomic kitchen utensils are designed with longer, larger handles so that the pressure is distributed over a wider area of the hand and the wrist is kept straight. These are just some generic enhancements for the kitchen workspace.

Bedroom
The bedroom is perhaps the most important living space when it comes to ergonomically designing homes for maximal comfort. Body posture, physical stress, mental wellbeing; all depend on our sleeping habits. It is not surprising, then, that a dominant element of bedroom ergonomics is the bed. Its size, comfort, and accessibility must all precisely fit the context of the homeowner’s lifestyle.

Other than that, a wardrobe/closet, bedside tables, bedroom appliances like the air-conditioning or TV are elements that need to be analysed by a smart interior designer.

Other Areas
The living room is the recreational centre of the home. As such it should allow a lot of free space, compact furniture (space-saving), multifunctional furniture and versatile equipment, as well as an aesthetic layout. This is so that it lends a pleasing aura to inhabitants as well as the guests.

Kids’ rooms, on the other hand, are designed with safety paramount in mind. Sharp edges, high furniture, health hazards, inadequate space for storage, risky appliances, etc. are all especially avoided in kids’ room. Further, ergonomics focuses on comfort and functionality for kids in their rooms above all else.

Other parts of the house like the garage, basement, storage closets, etc. must also be ergonomically styled.

Work
A critical objective of the ergonomic design of workplaces is minimising distances so that employees don’t waste time and effort traversing to-and-fro, be it between different parts of the entire work structure like entrances, work areas, restaurants, or other facilities, or even between workstations.

While ensuring there isn’t too much space between workspaces, a clear path for travel, of around 32-36 inch, should be maintained within and between work areas.

Working demographics are becoming increasingly diverse; all kinds of minorities are part of the workforce now. There are no demarcated work situations; all workplaces across industries have become more and more diluted and hybridized, as people from varying backgrounds have access to them.

Accordingly, workspaces of modern infrastructure should be inclusive and cater to diverse needs. For instance, they should offer gender-inclusive facilities like baby changing stations in bathrooms, crèche rooms, menstrual products in women’s washrooms, and so on. Other minorities, like people with disabilities, must also be at home with the spatial arrangement and design. For one, working areas should accommodate wheelchair users seamlessly. Aisles as wide as 45-50 inch between workstations are a start.

Besides these structural elements, the workplace environment can also be worked upon. Ergonomic designing would maintain contrast in both colour and brightness for the office walls and floor. Speaking of the floor, the carpeting should be non-absorbent without padding; carpets of warm, dark colours are preferable. To not disorient workers, objects should not hang lower than 80 inch above the floor.

Adequate work surface setup for employees’ workstations is perhaps the most crucial factor in workplace ergonomics; this is where workers spend most of their working time, after all.

The work surface should be adjusted to be around 25-34 inch high, and easily adjustable for further use, for seated work. The workspace should accommodate sufficient leg space for flexibility of body postures; also, the knee well should be at least 19 inch deep.

To ensure that the user has to bend, flex, or twist (arm, wrists, or hands) as little as possible, equipment like monitor, telephone and stationery should be placed close to the user, but with adequate space in between.

The keyboard and mouse should be placed on a platform (at least 28 inch wide) directly in front of the user and beneath the monitor, so that the user can use them with forearms resting on the armchair for support. Both should also facilitate ease of movement.

Finally, to reduce light reflection, a matte finish on the work surface is recommended.

Wheelchair Users
Besides having physiological benefits, ergonomics also has political relevance. It is a science which thinks inclusively. The various needs of diverse human beings based on gender, age, physique, etc. are now being recognised in the workplace, thanks to ergonomics. Ergonomics is not limited to optimising comfort and ambience; it is vital in its consideration for the spatial needs of the disabled.

Ergonomic realignment of interior design and general infrastructure to accommodate the needs of individuals who use wheelchairs is an inclusive and socially considerate measure taken by designers and manufacturers of late.

If you wish to design genuinely open and accessible working and living spaces, here are some fundamental guidelines for ergonomically restructuring these spaces, to make them easily navigable by wheelchair users:

  • The door should be installed with at least 32 inch of clearance.
  • A kick-plate should be installed 12-18 inch above the floor.
  • Door knobs should be replaced with levers, push bars, or U-shaped pull handles, all 36-48 inch above the floor.
  • The resistance met when the door is pushed open or closed should be minimised. Either this, or a power door or slider door should be installed.

In conclusion, ergonomics is an integral part of any interior design or manufacturing. Its concepts offer insights on people’s comfort, health, physical needs, and safety in the workplace or at home, and have the potential to greatly enhance user experience.

The author is a founder of Physio Ergo. Views are his own.

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