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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

Jan. 12, 2007

Pain reliever

by Anne Krapfl

The tall kitchen worker with an aching neck and shoulders. The chemistry lab employee with a dull throb in her wrists. The publications designer with a sore right arm. A common denominator among these employees in seemingly unrelated jobs is that a visit from the campus ergonomist eased their discomfort.

Paul Hokanson works in the health and safety group of ISU's environmental health and safety department. As an industrial hygienist, he wears many hats. He coordinates the testing of fume hoods - nearly 1,100 of them - for safe operation, for example. He also evaluates work areas for any potential employee exposure to chemical hazards. And about a third of his job is as the point person for inquiries related to ergonomics in peoples' workspaces.

Paul Hokanson

Industrial hygienist Paul Hokanson conducts an office work space assessment with Janet Mason in the News Service office. As an ergonomics specialist, Hokanson does about 65 such assessments each year.

Photo by Bob Elbert.

"'Ergonomics' comes from two Greek words and means 'the study of work,'" Hokanson said. "Physically, we're all different, so what we're trying to do is fit the tools or equipment to the person."

That's a much easier task, he noted, when one person is assigned to one workstation. It becomes challenging and requires greater flexibility when, say, eight employees use the same workstation during multiple shifts.

Hokanson estimates he does about 70 individual evaluations every year, about 65 of which are for employees working at a computer desk. The rest are for employees in a variety of jobs, including lab or custodial work.

"Most people think of office ergonomics, but ergonomics applies to many fields," he said. "Is a custodian using the right mop for him or her? Is he or she using it properly? Is the lab technician using a pipettor correctly? Is there something he can do to ease the strain on his wrist?"

For starters

Hokanson maintains and updates a series of online e-Book presentations on ergonomic topics such as computer eyestrain, sitting at work, alternative keyboards, wrist exercises, features to consider when purchasing a desk chair and others. (From the EH&S homepage, click on "Occupational Health," then "Ergonomics," and finally "e-Books.") This PowerPoint series is a proactive first step, he said, to receive some basic information about causes and prevention of physical discomfort in the workplace. He also leads a two-hour training course on office ergonomics three times a year. Course dates this spring are March 20 and May 22 (register online from the EH&S training site).

My workspace

ISU employees who experience discomfort at work and suspect it could be related to the equipment they use (including how they're using it) or the configuration of their workspace may schedule an individual evaluation with Hokanson. An ergonomic evaluation takes 30 to 40 minutes to complete, during which he observes the individual at work, asks questions and likely will take numerous measurements. This service is free. It's a sort of home remodel estimator with some kindly medical bedside manner tossed in.

"I go through a standard checklist, but at the same time, each evaluation is really different," he said.

When it's an office ergonomic evaluation, Hokanson assesses such things as desk and chair height, posture, distances - for example, eye to computer monitor, computer mouse to keyboard - and how the employee uses a keyboard. "Floating" hands are considered good and heel of hand resting on a hard surface is a situation that ought to be corrected.

Hokanson offers suggestions as he moves through his evaluation. He also follows up with a written report to the employee within two to three days. In it, he includes recommendations to the employee about posture and best use of the equipment in the workstation. He may recommend a minor purchase or two, perhaps a keyboard tray that can accommodate both keypad and computer mouse. It's up to the department to follow through or not.

Yes, he said, he still sees the occasional circa-1950s desk in use, but overall he believes departments "are trying to make their employee work areas ergonomically correct."

"People are receptive to the recommendations I offer them," Hokanson said. "Usually by the time they call me, they're in discomfort and they want that to change."

The reward to him is to eliminate their discomfort.

Times change and jobs change with them. Decades ago, Hokanson noted that employers may have hired a certain body type for the job they needed done. Now, employers fit the tools and equipment to the individuals they hire.

"There lies the chief challenge in ergonomics," Hokanson said. It's a challenge he rather enjoys.


"'Ergonomics' comes from two Greek words and means 'the study of work.' Physically, we're all different, so what we're trying to do is fit the tools or equipment to the person."

- Paul Hokanson