We’re excited to launch a new series entitled “The Quarterly Interview.” Each quarter, Certified Professional Ergonomist and Ergonomics Engineer, Blake McGowan, will introduce a leading figure in the field of ergonomics and highlight his (her) achievements and contributions.
Recently, McGowan sat down with Dr. Don B. Chaffin, referred to by some as one of the founders in ergonomics. Prior to retiring in 2007, Chaffin was the R.G. Snyder Distinguished University Professor (Emeritus) in Industrial and Operations Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, and Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan. His contributions to the field are endless and can’t be depicted in this short interview.
The interview below:
McGowan: As a student, and well before Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, what got you interested in occupational safety and ergonomics?
Chaffin: A year after completing my PhD in Industrial Engineering in 1967, I was working as the Assistant Professor of Physical Medicine at the University of Kansas. At the same time, Congress was about to pass the Occupational Health and Safety Act, which would provide funding for new educational programs to protect worker safety and ergonomics. The University of Michigan IOE department asked me to lead a faculty team to develop a proposal to educate engineers about occupational safety and ergonomics. Because I had worked at many companies, I was convinced that the tools and equipment provided to workers could be designed better to accommodate their physiological capabilities. I knew this would happen only if engineers and designers knew more about ergonomics. I was eager to embark on that challenge.
McGowan: Of all the contributions in the field of ergonomics, which are you most proud of?
Chaffin: There are three contributions that, together, have made a big impact. The first is the textbook I wrote, Occupational Biomechanics. Now in its fourth edition, it is read throughout the world. The second is the development of the 3D SSPP software that allows safety and health professionals to understand the effects of high-exertion tasks on the musculoskeletal system. Third are the ergonomics courses that Tom Armstrong and I helped to develop and deliver to several thousand safety and health care providers.
McGowan: Which contribution, if any, has yet to receive the accolades it deserves?
Chaffin: My most recent work, since 1998, has been the Human Motion Simulation Laboratory. With the help of graduate students and faculty advisors, such as Matt Reed and Julian Faraway, we studied the movement behaviors of about 300 different people. From that, we collected and assembled a database of more than 230,000 human motions. These data have been shared with other universities and national research laboratories. With the resulting models of the data, designers and engineers can visualize avatars moving around in their virtual CAD environments; this practice is human-centered engineering. The technology is still evolving and, unfortunately, only a fraction of engineers seem to appreciate it when designing new systems.
McGowan: Based on your years of experience in academia and industry, what advice would you give to EHS professionals?
Chaffin: I would tell them to work closely with engineers. They have the means and often the budgets to design systems that are more accommodating and safe for all workers, but they need the expertise of EHS professionals to make this happen.
McGowan: In your view, is ergonomics an engineering discipline or an occupational safety discipline?
Chaffin: In my view, ergonomics is all about designing systems for people. This is what engineering education and practice should embrace. I have always supported ergonomics as an engineering discipline. It draws heavily on life and social science.
Chaffin is still contributing to the field through the University of Michigan. When off campus, he and his wife, Barbara, spend as much time as they can with their three children and seven grandchildren.