DEI Through Ergonomics:
Supporting Diverse Body Types and Abilities
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Editor’s note: Many people in the disability community increasingly advocate for the use of identity-first language in place of person-first language when referring to disabled individuals. To accommodate individuals’ varied preferences and to reflect the still-evolving nature of the conversation on how to best describe the disability community in media and journalism, this article alternates between identity-first and person-first language.
Both specific organizations and society in general are shifting to focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI. Traditionally, diversity refers to the range of different people and perspectives represented within the membership of a group or organization. However, diversity may be conceptualized in many different ways, since people meaningfully differ in a myriad of dimensions. Experiential diversity refers to the range of backgrounds, experiences, and expertise represented among the members of a group. Cultural diversity refers to differences associated with specific communities or societies, including differences in language and religion, and overlaps with ideological diversity, which refers to the group members’ range of beliefs and perspectives for understanding and characterizing the world. Functional diversity refers to the range and variety of information, knowledge, and skills that can be applied to tasks. While most corporate DEI efforts focus on demographic diversity—that is, diversity in categories such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, and religious affiliation—successful workplaces must be prepared to deal with other dimensions of diversity, including diversity in terms of physical ability and disability. Increasing diversity within a company’s workforce can help the organization develop more robust or novel ways to conceptualize problems, solutions, and activities in the workplace. While acknowledging categorical aspects of diversity is important for improving workplace culture, diversity doesn’t account for the whole picture when it comes to helping all employees feel invited, included, involved, and important to the organization’s success. Equity, the second letter of the DEI acronym, calls on organizations to provide a level playing field by ensuring that employees’ different needs and resources are recognized and supported. Finally, inclusion refers to employees’ authentic experience of being welcomed, respected, and empowered as valued members of their organization. Incorporating ergonomics principles can help you take your company’s DEI programs to the next level. According to the International Ergonomics Association, the professional practice of ergonomics applies theory, principles, data, and design methods to optimize human well-being and overall system performance. This means that applying ergonomics principles makes the completion of tasks more achievable for a larger percentage of the population and supports diversity and inclusion in terms of size, physical strength, mobility, and sensory ability across the workforce. This article outlines practical examples that demonstrate how ergonomics efforts can support DEI initiatives. OFFICE WORKSPACES Many people still work in offices, at least during part of the work week. One place to start improving ergonomics in your office is by assessing the range of office chairs available. What do the chairs look like? Are they carbon copies of each other? Are they adjustable? How well could you adjust a chair to fit a very tall person—that is, someone in the 95th percentile for human height? How well could you adjust one to fit a small person in the fifth percentile for height? It is not uncommon to see a smaller executive perching on the edge of a large, plush leather office chair because the seat pan depth doesn’t adjust to accommodate people with shorter thigh lengths. Similarly, offices frequently fail to provide chairs that accommodate heavier people. These employees’ chairs must accommodate them not only in weight capacity but also in terms of seat pan, seat back, and armrest width. The Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA), which is accredited by the American National Standards Institute, includes ergonomics considerations in its standards. BIFMA’s standards for office chairs and other types of furniture, such as desks, conference tables, and side chairs, are designed to accommodate users between the fifth and 95th population percentiles for size. Also, consider the computer peripherals you provide. How well do computer mice fit people with very large or small hands? Do you expect everyone to use travel mice or their laptop trackpads all the time? How well do keyboard widths fit users? Are any users disabled, and how may you accommodate them? Just as in the case of office chairs, a single size does not fit all. Expecting someone with large hands to use an extra-small travel mouse or someone with small hands to use an oversized rollerball mouse can result in cramping, discomfort, and possible injury if they use the ill-fitting mouse for a lengthy period of time. A split (two-piece) keyboard may better accommodate an employee with wider shoulders whose hands are further apart. Someone with more narrow shoulders could replace their standard keyboard with one that eliminates the number pad on the right-hand side so that they do not have to reach quite as far to use the mouse, minimizing their risk of developing tennis elbow.
In most cases, moving items closer to the level of smaller workers makes access easier for everyone.
Additionally, consider the workstation or furniture designs for employees with mobility or sensory disabilities, as they are just as susceptible to developing injuries as other employees. Workstation furniture must provide sufficient clearance under work surfaces and openings wide enough to permit wheelchair users to maintain good posture while accessing their computers and performing other tasks. Individuals with low visual acuity must be able to increase the font size and adjust the contrast, color, brightness, and other features of their on-screen documents to permit good posture and reduce headaches and other vision issues. Employees with low visual acuity may also require larger computer monitor screens with higher resolutions.
REMOTE WORK Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a rapid increase in the number of employees working remotely. Many companies are reducing assigned personal workspaces in favor of shared workspaces (a practice known as hoteling) in an effort to reduce costs. If this description fits your workplace, how adjustable are these communal spaces? How do they fit the larger, smaller, or disabled employees we described above? Adjustability is paramount to accommodating a larger proportion of the population.
Another important aspect of shared workspaces and remote work is employees’ need to plug computers in for power and network access. Are employees forced to haul their computers, keyboards, mice, and power cables with them each time they transition from home to the shared workspace and vice versa? Network and power access must be made available and quick to set up, such as by outfitting shared workspaces with docking stations for power and network connectivity, as well as with external monitors and keyboards. Otherwise, workers may be tempted to “make do” by taking their laptops with them to sit on couches, non-adjustable chairs, or, even worse, backless stools. A lack of second monitors can cause employees to hunch over and strain to see their screens. These non-neutral postures place enormous strain on the body over time, especially the lower back.
TASK AND TOOL DESIGN Even for office workers, job tasks involve more than just sitting at a desk. Be sure to consider office workers’ tasks as well as tasks performed by employees based in industrial environments. How high are items stored? Are you expecting smaller employees to reach high items frequently? Do employees need to reach to access part bins or across work surfaces or conveyors? How far of a reach is too far for smaller employees?
When laying out workstations, consider utilizing anthropometric data to develop specifications that will allow larger employees to fit into spaces and smaller employees to reach items they need. An ergonomics professional may have to dig beyond U.S. workforce data if their facility employs workers of many different ethnic or national backgrounds. For example, smaller (fifth percentile) U.S. women have a longer forward grip reach than smaller (fifth percentile) Japanese women. Using U.S. data to design tasks may exclude a significant portion of a facility’s workforce if that workforce mainly consists of people representing other nationalities.
Also, consider reducing the amount of force, including lifting and hand grip, that your tasks require. It’s not feasible, practical, or profitable to exclusively hire tall, muscled athletes to make up for poor task design at your workplace. Not all workers have the same maximum force-generating capability, but they may still be hired to do more manually intensive, forceful jobs. Additionally, more people are staying in the workforce longer and putting off retirement for many reasons. As people age, their maximum force-generating capability declines compared to what they were capable of in their twenties. As safety professionals, we need to design or redesign tasks based on appropriate strength data to make sure that people with less physical strength can safely lift, lower, push, pull, and carry items to complete their tasks. This might mean reducing a product’s package weight, providing a powered pallet jack, or adding knurling on a screw-top lid to help people with reduced grip strength issues like arthritis. Designing tasks to be performed using both hands or either hand supports left-handed people, reduces employee fatigue, and helps all employees use less effort, which is key to opening up jobs to a diverse population.
Earlier, we discussed allowing employees to increase font size on computer screens; the same principle applies for signage, too. Ensure the wording on signs and labels is large enough for people with low visual acuity, including older employees, to read. If different products or ingredients have similar names, consider utilizing “tall man” lettering: for example, in the pharmaceutical industry, the drugs “prednisone” and “prednisolone” would be written “predniSONE” and “predniSOLONE” to reduce confusion, especially in fast-paced work environments. Changing label or font colors to indicate whether a product is for infants, toddlers, or adults can also prevent mistakes in pharmaceutical dosing. Another recommendation for improving employees’ ability to read signs and labels is to improve lighting, either by enhancing task lighting at individual workstations or increasing the brightness of overall room lighting in work areas.
Assess whether your workplace can simplify the wording of instructions, signs, and other important communications to help workers who may speak English as a second language or may not speak it at all. Graphics, intuitive pictures, and universal symbols may supplement the language in your communications. For deaf or hard-of-hearing workers, add visual or tactile indicators like flashing lights or vibrating fobs to alert them when important messages are being transmitted. Think about further improving your sign and signal design to ensure that workers with color vision deficiencies can distinguish between signals such as red and green lights, which may have very different meanings.
PHYSICAL ACCESS Think of ways to include more employees in other types of workplace access as well. Many of a facility’s structural areas, such as hallways, aisles, and restroom stalls, are already covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, but pay attention to the layout of other areas, such as meeting rooms and breakrooms, to ensure that wheelchair users are able to easily navigate around furniture and other equipment. Breakroom tables, meeting room tables, and shared workstations should provide ample clearance underneath for wheelchair users.
Consider the location of items that workers will need to reach. Are they too far away or too high for smaller people to access? In most cases, moving items closer to the level of smaller workers makes access easier for everyone. Think about larger workers as well: if a task requires users to place their hands through an access panel, ensure that the opening fits a larger worker’s gloved hand. Similarly, think about the clearance room for a larger worker’s feet when they stand at their workstation. Providing an amply-sized toe-kick at the workstation, like the kind often found at kitchen counters, can help this employee stand closer to their work. Be sure to account for the worker’s shoe height, too, especially if their work requires them to wear steel-toed boots.
ERGONOMICS TO SUPPORT INCLUSION Of course, there are many more ways to use ergonomic design principles to include more diverse populations in the workplace. As a safety professional, industrial hygienist, or ergonomics practitioner, you should have access to anthropometric and strength data that can help you practice greater inclusion. Remember to design tasks and workspaces so that smaller workers can reach, larger workers can fit, and workers with less strength can lift, lower, push, pull, and carry. Consider your environment from the perspectives of disabled workers, including those who use wheelchairs and other mobility aids.
At its core, ergonomics is human centered. When we utilize sound ergonomic principles, we create environments that are more inclusive to a more diverse community. This benefits companies by supporting a larger pool of potential employees. It also leads to more satisfied workforces that show increased participation, membership, and generational longevity, improved problem solving and innovations, a greater number of novel contributions, and scalable societal impact. The intersection of diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts should provide individual employees with a sense that they belong to an organization that engages their full potential, encourages innovation, and integrates a range of views, beliefs, and values.
GARY DOWNEY, PE, CPE, is an ergonomist with the Ergonomics Center, part of the Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is a past chair of the AIHA Ergonomics Committee.
ELLEN GALLO, CSP, CPE, MSC, is a senior safety and ergonomics consultant with Aon Global Risk Services. She is a member and past chair of AIHA’s Ergonomics Committee and a former director of the Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics (BCPE).
PENNEY STANCH, CIH, CSP, CPE, WELL AP, is a principal industrial hygienist with Baer Engineering and Environmental Consulting Inc. in Austin, Texas. She is a member of the AIHA Ergonomics Committee and a director of the Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics (BCPE).
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CRC Press: Bodyspace: Anthropometry, Ergonomics and the Design of Work, 3rd ed. (2006).
Human Factors and Ergonomics Society: “Assessing Authentic Diversity in the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society: An HFES White Paper” (PDF, 2021).
Proceedings of the 2021 HFES 65th International Annual Meeting: “Broadening Diversity and Inclusivity in Human Factors and Ergonomics” (PDF, presentation by Mia Spiwak, Abigail R. Wooldridge, and Rory Lusebrink, 2021).