It’s no secret that humans are all shapes and sizes. All you have to do to see these different sizes is look around you while you are at work, the grocery store, the airport, a sporting event, etc. How do we account for these different sizes of human operators in the work environment? The answer is using anthropometric data.
Anthropometry is the study of the human body measurements especially on a comparative basis (Merriam-Webster). The data yielded from anthropometric studies is extremely valuable in designing workstations, work processes, tools, equipment, etc. for employees in all types of industries/work environments. There are a few methods in which anthropometric data is utilized in the work environment.
Method 1: Ignoring anthropometric data. Some organizations design the work environment to meet the business needs related to space considerations, tools, equipment, etc. without any thought to the human operator. The thought process may be that human operators are adaptable and will find a way to get the job done. This usually leads to poor morale, decreased worker well-being, injury, increased absenteeism/presenteeism, and increased turnover/reduced retention.
Method 2: Using anthropometric data of the existing workforce. This involves the organization designing the work environment based on the characteristics of the current workforce. This works well for the current workforce, but if the organization experiences rapid growth or turnover, the characteristics of the workforce will probably change, which will make the work environment less than optimal for the new workforce.
Method 3: Designing for the average population. Some organizations utilize the anthropometric data of the 50th percentile population to design a fixed/rigid work environment. Although this would seem like the organization is designing for a majority of the population, this isn’t the actual case. The reason being the chances of the average size person having all of the characteristics of the average population are extremely minimal. A person may be average height, but may have longer/shorter arms, longer/shorter legs, above or below average strength, etc. There is a saying in the ergonomics realm that, “If you design for the average, you design for no one.”
Method 4: Including adjustability features. Proactive organizations with a long-term growth strategy are more likely to include adjustability features in their work environment. This may include adjustable workstations, tools, equipment, etc. If you include adjustability features for the 5th percentile female through the 95th percentile male, you will be able to accommodate approximately 80% of the population. The outliers will be the 1st—4th percentile and 96th—100th percentile males/females. Accommodating the needs of the outliers on a case-by-case basis is usually more effective and
cost-effective than trying to include adjustability features for 100% of the population.
The answer to optimizing the work environment and ultimately worker well-being is including adjustability whenever possible. Fixed working environments are rigid and do not grow with the workforce or with changes in the workforce anthropometrics. Just as organizations are looking to maximize the value of their employees via cross-training in multiple processes/areas of the business,
it makes sense with multiple people of various sizes performing the same tasks that adjustability
should be included to optimize the performance/productivity and well-being of the workers.