By definition, the Australian Standards champion standardised approaches to design and engineering. What is the role of such guidelines in ergonomics, where flexibility and non-standard design are the goal?
April 14th, 2018
Since 1922, Standards Australia has been the nation’s paramount non-government, not-for-profit provider of specifications, procedures, and guidelines for the design of products, services, and systems. Best known as the source of Australian Standards, the organisation does not enforce, regulate, or certify compliance with Standards, which, unless expressly incorporated into legislation, are not legally binding. Around 9000 technical committee members at the forefront of their respective fields donate their time and expertise to develop new and refine existing Australian Standards, with the organisation estimating that this voluntary work is the equivalent of $30, 000, 000 of paid labour each year.
Because the Australian Standards prescribe minimum and maximum performance requirements that often presume a standard user or operation context, they are somewhat difficult to reconcile with ergonomics. Today, the ergonomics discipline recognises the problems inherent within designing for a standard user, and instead champions flexibility and the ability for products and systems to adapt to the different needs of a spectrum of users. As a consequence of this divergence, the Australian Standards are largely silent on the question of ergonomics. Although ergonomics has permeated design for all sectors beyond the commercial, the Australian Standards only discuss ergonomics in the context of workplace design.
In 1997, the joint standard AS/NZS 4443: 1997 – Office panel systems – workstations superseded AS 3590 – Screen Based Workstations part 2 as the foremost guideline for commercial workspace design. Jointly developed by Standards Australia and the Australian Furniture Research and Development Institute (AFRDI), the guideline is deliberately open-ended, “[specifying] minimum requirements for function, strength, durability and stability of workstations, leaving designers and manufacturers the maximum opportunity to develop suitable products”. On the topic of ergonomics and adjustability or optimal positioning it is largely silent: in the foreword to the Standard an adjustable workstation in which the operator’s feet are flat on the floor and the keyboard positioned at, or slightly below, elbow height is briefly described, but this is the extent of the discussion. While AS 3590 included guidelines for visual ergonomics, AS/NZS 4443 refers to workstation furniture in isolation.
At the time of its publication, AS/NZS 4443 was a promising start in introducing ergonomics into the design mainstream. Twenty years later, however, the loose guidelines are at odds with the increasingly central nature of ergonomics in design. The Standard remains predicated on workstations incorporating fixed computers that are only used by a single individual, although this is no longer the case. Portable devices and agile new work methodologies mean that workers may move from desk to desk and work across a number of devices – including portable devices – in one day. Ergonomic design is more important than ever to prevent worker discomfort and injury in a technology-driven workplace.
As discussed above, ergonomics does not lend itself to minimum or maximum values. Standards Australia has recently sought to better incorporate ergonomics into the Australian Standards by simply raising the profile of ergonomics within the design and engineering industries. Reconfirmed in 2016 but initially published in 1994, HB59 – Ergonomics – The human factor: A practical approach to work systems design is a handbook that equips designers with basic ergonomic knowledge that can be used during the design process. The handbook takes a broad-brush approach that provides a general understanding of anthropometric principles that can then be applied to specific contexts such as workstations, furniture, systems, or procedures.
Though the handbook provides an excellent overview of the basics of ergonomics, the fact that it was first published in 1994 must not be overlooked. Because the process of writing Standards is so rigorous and done by consensus, the average Standard is in development for 7-10 years. As such, a lag in terms of new technologies that are not addressed in Standards is to some extent unavoidable. In spite of this, technology has advanced rapidly between 1994 and present, and it has become apparent that mobile technologies within the workforce are here to stay.
Moving forward, the Standards should work toward providing clear ergonomic guidelines for mobile work, which is more difficult to design for than fixed work behaviours and even harder to implement. These guidelines should not necessarily come in terms of prescribed dimensions or angles, but rather by way of strategies for negotiating the interface of laptops, tablets, smartphones, and desktops to achieve maximum worker health and wellbeing. Indeed, the centrality of good ergonomic design in promoting worker health creates a new tension: any ergonomics guidelines enshrined in Standards would not be binding, although they arguably should be. Potentially, Standards Australia could work closely with government bodies to investigate options for incentivising ergonomic compliance in the workplace: regardless of the exact strategies used, ergonomics should be a standard component of workplace design.
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