Lessons in Ergonomics from My Grandmother

I recently had the opportunity to record a public service announcement (PSA) for WDEV.  This is part of a series of PSA’s the UVM Extension colleagues contribute to. I decided to focus on ergonomics and shared some lessons from my grandmother and other sources. Click below to listen.

The text and additional resources are available below.

Hi, this is Chris Callahan from UVM Extension.  I work as an Agricultural Engineer helping farms and food businesses put technology and research-based knowledge to use. Sometimes, I work on really complicated and fancy stuff like electronic sensors and robots.  And sometimes I work on really simple things. Today, I want to talk about a really simple thing that can make a big difference to anyone… on the farm, at the office, or at home. It is called ergonomics and it is the science of designing and arranging things we use so that the we interact with them most efficiently and safely.

My grandmother, Marie Durand Seyffert, was an expert at ergonomics.  She was also an amazing cook. I don’t really remember what toys I received during the holidays as a child, but I can tell you what Grandma cooked for each meal.  She worked out of a modest kitchen with simple kitchen tools. Every part of the meal hit the table at the right time, was piping hot and was perfectly done. She had a system, she set herself up to do the work.

Although she refused any help in the kitchen (except lifting and reaching things in high cupboards), I would often just visit with her and watch her work. When peeling potatoes she would set herself up at a little kitchen table seated on a chair, potatoes to be peeled in a pot, on one side of her resting on a chair.  Peeled potatoes dropped in a pot of water on the other side, also on a chair. She made short work of this task in fluid movements, whistling or chatting with me as she worked. This is just one example of how Grandma would “set herself up” for a task.

There are some general principles of ergonomics that we can all apply regardless of the task.

  1. Maintain a Neutral Posture – be comfortable, put things within easy reach to prevent strain on the neck, back and joints.
  2. Set Yourself Up – be organized, have all your supplies handy, think about what might happen, and be mindful of trip hazards (throw-rugs, cords, thresholds, etc.)
  3. Lift Easily – lift only what you can comfortably and ask for help lifting heavy objects.
  4. Use Your “Power Zone” – lift and carry with the core of your body.  Think about cradling a baby or carrying firewood.. Keep it close to your body and don’t extend your arms.
  5. Use Handholds – use a bucket or a bag to carry things, a good example is a firewood sling.
  6. Push, Don’t Pull – things are easier to push than pull, try to find ways to move things by pushing them.
  7. Task Rotation – switch between tasks when one of them is repetitive, take frequent breaks to change position, stretch and think about something else.

One last Grandma story… She loved to drive her car.  But as she got older she had an arthritic knee that bothered her when driving.  One day when I was visiting, she mentioned that she had trouble reaching the pedals as nimbly as she’d like due to her knee. She asked if I could add a pedal extension to the accelerator for her. “Just a little block of some sort”, she said. She didn’t ask for it, but I also added one to the brake pedal. She was driving, and driving safely, until she was 94.


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