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Shutterstock/ Studiostoks
Shutterstock/ Studiostoks

Beds, keyboards, household appliances, lighting. It seems most every product today is described as “ergonomically” designed. Tools are definitely on the list.

A dictionary definition of ergonomics is the applied science concerned with designing and arranging things that people use so they interact most efficiently and safely.

Six tool manufacturers accepted the invitation to relate ergonomics to their tool products and how ergonomics has played a role in the evolution of these products.

DeWalt 20V cordless wire stripper.
DeWalt 20V cordless wire stripper.

DeWalt Senior Product Manager Mike Peiffer said many factors make a tool ergonomic.

“First, how the tool fits in the hand and how the grip feels,” he said. “Second, is how the tool is balanced. Third, how the user interfaces with the tool. These aspects are tested rigorously in labs, but more importantly, they are tested day in and day out in the field by actual users who make a living using the tools.”

Another way that DeWalt seeks to improve tool ergonomics is identifying a task that may be perceived as tedious or dangerous and finding new solutions to complete the tool’s task.

“The two best and most recent examples of this process for the electrical trade are our 20V Max cordless stapler and 20V Max wire stripper,” Peiffer said.

“The process of manually stapling Romex cable to studs and manually stripping cable not only is time-consuming, but can be dangerous. By developing cordless power tools for this work, we eliminate serious hazards of hitting a finger with a hammer while stapling cable and hand lacerations caused by cable stripping with a knife,” Peiffer said.

DeWalt product managers and engineers spend a significant amount of their time in the field and on job sites.

“Most of our ergonomic improvements come from these interactions and information fed back to our development teams,” Peiffer said. “The entire product development life cycle really revolves around this process of taking exactly what the user prefers and designing a tool they will prefer over other options.”

Combining research, development and significant technology improvements, tools continue to become smaller and lighter. A notable example of this is the 1-in. cordless rotary hammer, he said.

“This tool is not only smaller in size and weight than the legacy corded tool in its class, but with a brushless motor and electronic controls, it delivers higher performance over the corded version,” Peiffer said.

Flir's T1010 thermal imager is designed to be easy to use.
Flir's T1010 thermal imager is designed to be easy to use.

Flir Director of Instrument Marketing Richard Wexler said in Flir’s array of thermal imagers and test equipment, ergonomic design integrates improvements to usability, while reducing strain or discomfort from use.

“We know tool customers want rugged tools and that electricians also want tools they enjoy using,” Wexler said. “We strive to design tools that are easy to hold and are lightweight that don’t cause strain during extended inspections and that allow optimal viewing angles of the display for the same purpose.

“We have equipment and thermal imagers that have integrated touch screens and, and we also want to ensure buttons and dials are easy to use while wearing gloves.”

Wexler said refinements in more powerful thermal imagers have yielded a compact thermal imaging camera design with a rotating lens block that enables users to easily aim the camera at an object. The large display screen is angled for optimal viewing. Unlike older “camcorder”-style thermal imagers, new models are much smaller and lighter designs that make them easy to aim and hold with no strain or compromise in viewing. Pistol grips have been added.

“An evolution of test equipment is silicone test leads, which are much more pliable in cold weather, making them easier to use, even if they have been in a truck overnight in winter months,” Wexler said.

Fluke Corp. Design Manager Jeff Elrod said Fluke practices a “user-centered” design process that means information about products is collected directly from users and then employs rapid prototyping and conduct usability research in a learn, build and measure process.

“We adapt prototypes as we go based on this customer feedback loop,” he said. “To a certain extent the Internet of Things (IoT) revolution has fundamentally altered the traditional tool and user’s measurement workflow and, therefore, ergonomic requirements.”

Fluke has specific design standards that relate to all customer touch points on all its products, Elrod said.

“These standards are built from decades of customer research, specific usability goals for the product and iterative prototyping. Usability goals are directly translated back to the user’s tasks and helps build the framework by which we measure success. The end result produces a tool that helps the user complete their tasks in a more efficient way, is intuitive to use and fulfills the usability goals that we have set for the project,” Elrod said.

Fluke IR camera has an intuitive touchscreen interface.
Fluke IR camera has an intuitive touchscreen interface.

For example, properly focusing is critical for collecting temperature data with thermal imagers. The Fluke design team implemented a unique two-button trigger that allows users to focus and capture an image with one hand.

Another example is testing for motor vibration.

“Technicians once were required to manually capture vibration data,” Elrod said. “This process required taking precision measurements on operating equipment while working in some tough environments. Now we have semi fixed sensors that collect this same data remotely. This new model reduces user error and improves safety.”

Elrod believes there will be no end to the evolution of tool products.

“As humans evolve and work changes, the tools we need will change,” he said.

Greenlee Tools Ergonomic Specialist Jacob Thomas said his company identifies the features tools need with input directly from customers.

“We often visit job sites and ask what workers think of their current tools, what types of jobs they are using the tools for, what problems they face and overall what they think of their tools. We also observe how they use their tools. That information is evaluated before we engineer new products or reengineer current models to optimize and make them more user friendly. Before finalization of designs, prototypes are sent into the field for final input and evaluation,” Thomas said.

Knockout tools are an example of how ergonomics evolve.

Greenlee's ergonomics lab tests how tool users are affected.
Greenlee's ergonomics lab tests how tool users are affected. 

“The first knockout design was a ratchet version,” Thomas said. “Then we delivered hydraulic pump knockouts that are faster and require less muscle force. However, manual hydraulic pumps require repetition and muscle force, so different versions with hand pumps, foot pumps and quick draws were developed. Finally, battery-powered hydraulic knockout drivers were introduced letting the operator complete the action by pulling a trigger and using battery power instead of muscle force. Also contoured grip handles were added.”

Test meter makers must consider ergonomics, too.

Megger incorporates user input when designing testers.
Megger incorporates user input when designing testers.

Megger Senior Applications Engineer Jeffrey R. Jowett said the value of ergonomics can be compared to lifting a 5-lb. weight.

“Do it once,” he said, “nothing to it. Do it a hundred times; it may become prohibitive. Ergonomic improvements are best evaluated not in a single operation but in a day’s work. Seemingly small changes when practiced over a day’s work can significantly improve efficiency, leave the operator less tired and less prone to injury and error, and the testing results more reliable.”

Jowett said Megger bases decisions about product features and capabilities, including ergonomics, on information gathered from focus groups of contractors, electricians, maintenance technicians, engineers and other prospective users who share their recommendations and improvement ideas and requests. During the development process, extensive beta site testing is done with prospective users so that performance is improved to the maximum, and potential shortfalls are recognized and averted.

Jowett points to shrouded test leads that improve performance and are ergonomic.

“Years ago, test leads were largely wires with an alligator clip and a spade lug. They are now designed with no exposed metal so that [the] operator’s hands cannot contact electrical circuitry, finger guards to prevent accidental slippage into the test item, ribbed terminations that increase electrical creepage distances, high-resistance silicone insulation to significantly reduce or eliminate electrical leakage, and dual-layer insulation of different colors so that wear becomes readily detectable to the eye,” he said.

Of tools used by electricians, thermal imagers have changed dramatically in the past few years.

Milwaukee Tool’s Senior Manager of Ergonomics Raffi Eichemmas said research suggests a correlation exists between certain tool usage and the most common types of musculoskeletal disorder cases such as carpal tunnel syndrome, trigger finger tendonitis, rotator cuff tendonitis, lower back injuries, knee bursitis and elbow epicondylitis.

This Milwaukee illustration depicts muscles affected by power tool.
This Milwaukee illustration depicts muscles affected by power tool.

“Now, more than ever, using ergonomically- designed tools is an increasingly important part of the purchasing decision for companies, contractors, or anyone wanting to improve ergonomics and safety at work,” Eichemmas said.

He said Milwaukee works closely with tool users to better understand the problems they are facing to help design solutions to solve those problems, and that includes ergonomics.

“Ergonomics begins in the design phase of the process when that tool is just an idea on a piece of paper. We are designing out the ergonomic shortcomings. The goal is to create a balanced tool that will decrease muscle effort, and we want to prove that objectively before the product gets too far along in the process. The overall longevity of tool users can be positively impacted when manufacturers make proper objective, ergonomic measurement part of their overall tool development process,” he said.

An example of “good” ergonomics is the company’s 9-in., high-leverage pliers designed to provide maximum leverage and decrease force required during wire cutting.

“Through an optimized design, these pliers make it more safe and easy for electricians to cut ACSR, hard wire, and soft wire, and decreases their risk for musculoskeletal injuries,” Eichemmas said.

About the Author

Jeff Griffin

Freelance Writer

Jeff Griffin, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at up-front@cox.net.

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