Ergonomics done right.®
February 8th, 2012

Culture and Traditions: Ergonomics in the Medina

by Walt Rostykus, CPE

Seeing and learning about the daily workings and ways of life in other counties and cultures helps me keep things in perspective. While in Morocco, I noticed that most ground-level work was done manually by people working in a bent over, flexed-back posture.  This was a common practice for the guy mowing the lawn (with hand shears), the person painting the curb, and even the person mopping the floor with a hand cloth.  Watching them work in this “butts up” posture made me cringe.

In any country or workplace, people will bend and twist into awkward postures in order to complete work tasks even when they don’t have the right equipment.   Morocco is rich with Arabic and French history, handicrafts, fantastic foods, and traditional ways of working.   Simple tools like a lawn mower, longer handled brush or paint sprayer, or mop would have eliminated the need for these people to work in such positions.   But like many places around the world, the cost of labor is cheaper than the cost of things, equipment, and the right tool.

But not all is bad, from an ergonomic stand point.  Just around the corner in the Souk (market), I spotted one of the many handcarts used to transport goods and materials through the narrow, winding, and unpaved streets and alleyways.  Cars and trucks are not used in this part of the city since it was laid out long before motorized vehicles were created.

As I watched a porter transporting a cart full of mangos, I realized the good design of carts.  Design that had evolved over the years as new materials (steel frame and rubber wheels) replaced wood.  The waist-high handle placement and large pneumatic wheels improved the ergonomics of pushing the cart. Even though I was on vacation, I could not help but investigate the design. I measured the force required to get the cart moving and the force to sustain it, then compared them with the limits of the Snook-Cirrielio table (pushing). The force to get the cart moving (33lb), and the sustained force (19 lb.), were within the maximum acceptable forces recommended.  This indicates that good cart design helped reduce the amount of force the porter has to apply to move the weight of the cart (~50-70 lb.) and cargo (~100 lb. of fresh mango) across an uneven surface.

This experience is one illustration of the challenges we face improving ergonomics in the workplace; including design of equipment, perception and value of manual work versus investment in tools, cultural differences (of work, health, medicine, etc.) and perception of hazard and value.

What ergonomic “challenges” and “successes” have you seen in other cultures?