Marvin Dainoff has always had an interest in the way people behave, how they perceive and what effect those two variables have on their interaction with technology.
It's this continued interest in combining the study of psychology with the science of systems that led Dainoff to abandon retirement to direct Liberty Mutual's new Center for Behavioral Sciences. Dainoff will join Danish physiologist Nils Fallentin, who will direct the Liberty's Center for Physical Ergonomics.
The two new centers will join existing centers for Epidemiology and Disability Research as part of the company's Research Institute for Safety.
Dainoff began applying his knowledge of behaviors to humans and their environments well before the term "ergonomics" became part of mainstream vocabulary.
It began in 1977, when Mike Smith, an industrial engineering professor who at the time worked for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, mentioned to Dainoff that he kept hearing reports of visual problems being reported by people who worked at computer terminals.
But these problems weren't just visual--they were musculoskeletal disorders, postural problems and more.
"I started doing some reviews of the literature, and the next thing I knew, I was at NIOSH labs in Cincinnati where I did really the first controlled study that showed improvements in work performance and decreases in health systems as a result of a well-designed work station," he said.
Dainoff soon became involved in writing a national standard on human factors, and his enthusiasm helped alert others to the issue. The Miami University professor even got his wife Marilyn involved in the study of ergonomics. In 1986, the two published People and Productivity: A Manager's Guide to Ergonomics and the Electronic Office.
"Sales were, shall we say, underwhelming," he says, noting that it was a bit early for companies to embrace this new area of research.
One sector did respond quickly: the furniture industry. Its manufacturers incorporated ergonomic design into office products and served on standards committees.
But although furniture continues to improve--and offices continue to purchase it--Dainoff said much more work needs to be done to reduce ergonomic injuries.
"The worst thing that one can do is go out, listen to a vendor, buy a chair and one of those keyboard trays listed as being ergonomic and say, 'OK, we've solved your problem,' " he said. "Almost every employer has some kind of adjustable chair, but 99 percent of people don't know how to use it or don't know why it's there. You need an integrated approach."
Fallentin said his main ambition is to increase employer awareness of the need to combine education with the proper tools to assess and correct risk at the workplace. Fallentin, who chose to follow in the strong Scandinavian tradition in physiology, focuses his research on how people react in the workplace.
"What I'm interested in is having a look at differences between the susceptibility of individual workers, the combination of different risk factors in the workplace, and the interaction between the psychosocial and physical work environment," he said.
At the National Research Centre for the Working Environment in Copenhagen, Fallentin directed a research group of individuals from many different backgrounds, from economics, to the medical field, to physiology. The success that comes from working with a multidisciplinary group is part of what attracted him to Liberty Mutual.
"The strength of the institute is having these four centers with different kinds of expertise and being able to cross boundaries and work with all of the centers to solve a problem," he said. "The institute also puts a very strong emphasis on research to reality, which is indispensible in the workplace."
Dainoff, too, said the institute's focus on collaborative, multidisciplinary work, as well as Liberty Mutual's ability to more quickly to translate research to the workplace, led him to the position.
"We're not just solving specific problems, we're looking at the underlying causes in a systemic and scientific fashion and then are able to come up with scientific solutions," he said. "It gets me excited. It's why I'm here after supposedly retiring."
is a freelance writer based in Chicago.
(Read the rest of the People on the Move newsletter from August 27.)
August 27, 2008
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