Results in machines, vehicles, and PPE that are a better fit for workers

By John Howard, M.D.

Director, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

Safety at work can depend on an effective or comfortable fit between the physical workplace or the tools of work, and the worker. A seatbelt becomes impractical if it can't be latched securely or comfortably. The safety that firefighters' gloves provide is compromised if the gloves are too big, hampering dexterity and movement in a hectic and physically risky situation. Whatever the example of fitting today's workplace to the worker, one thing is certain: anthropometric research can help. Anthropometry is the science of defining human body dimensions and physical characteristics. NIOSH conducts anthropometric research to prevent work-related injuries and deaths by studying how work spaces and equipment fit today's diverse worker population. This includes the fit of machines, vehicles, and personal protective equipment (PPE).

Although some anthropometric data have been published in recent years based on the body sizes and shapes of modern military personnel, most data available today were collected in the 1950s and 1970s from military personnel and the general population from that era. These decades-old data do not represent, on average and collectively, the sizes and body types of today's workers, who are much more diverse in age, gender, and ethnicity. NIOSH research has shown workers have unique shapes and sizes for specific occupations. For instance, research revealed that truck drivers are heavier and wider than the average worker in the U.S. population, which has prompted many in the truck manufacturing industry to redesign truck cabs to support truck driver safety.

The differences in the body sizes and shapes of today's workers when compared to previously available anthropometric data, as well as limited availability of proper fitting PPE, can contribute to worker injuries and fatalities. The anthropometric research we're conducting will support worker safety and health by helping designers and manufacturers in:

  • Redesigning equipment and workspaces to better meet the needs of workers
  • Developing PPE that fits and works better
  • Making PPE more comfortable

Using anthropometric data to design machines, vehicles, and PPE that better fit today's workers is an important part of Prevention through Design (PtD). An example of PtD is Dr. Ziqing Zhaung's research on head-and-face anthropometry and 3D head models of industrial workers, which was incorporated into technical specifications of the International Organization for Standardization's (ISO) standards for testing new respirator face pieces. Moreover, an article written by NIOSH's Dr. Hongwei Hsiao, which has been among the most-read articles in Human Factors in the past few years, gives several other examples of how equipment and PPE can be redesigned to improve the safety and health of workers. Taken together, these research outputs have assisted in the development of better-fitting PPE for the workplace, with manufacturers reporting the use of NIOSH data in design efforts of everything from hard hats to fall protection harnesses.

Most of NIOSH's research on workers' physical measures takes place in the NIOSH Anthropometry Labs. The Morgantown and Pittsburgh labs were developed in 1995 and 2001 respectively, and they are two of only several in the world with advanced technologies for collecting highly accurate anthropometric data. Computer-generated human models are available for analysis through 3-dimensional digital scanning in the lab. Full-body, head, and foot scanners as well as a hand-held scanning device for stationary objects are available and can produce high resolution scans within seconds.

NIOSH also has a Mobile Anthropometry Lab equipped with a whole body, foot, hand, and head scanner, all inside a 30-foot long trailer. This lab on wheels allows researchers to reach workers across the nation. The Mobile Anthropometry Lab has traveled across the United States, making stops in Boise, Fort Worth, New Haven, Phoenix, Minneapolis, Richmond, and Tallahassee.

These two labs were instrumental in our most recent research. As you may recall from the February issue of eNews, I shared some of NIOSH's 2015 priorities. One of those goals was to develop and publish a summary of truck driver and firefighter anthropometry data on the NIOSH website for use in equipment and workspace design. I am delighted to report that NIOSH has made significant progress toward achieving this goal.

NIOSH recently released a summary of results from the first-ever federal anthropometric study of U.S. truck drivers. This document can help truck manufacturers improve the ergonomic design of truck cabs to better fit the sizes and shapes of today's drivers. A truck cab designed on up-to-date truck driver body size and shape data supports a safer work environment for its operator. NIOSH gave data from this research to several truck manufacturers, which are using it to redesign truck cabs.

As for firefighter anthropometric research, NIOSH's most recent studies have assessed fire apparatus seat and seat belt designs, and the fit of gloves used in structural firefighting to accommodate current firefighters. As a result, NIOSH has given apparatus manufacturers and standards committees recommendations for seatbelt length, seat width and spacing, and head supports. NIOSH has also proposed an improved sizing scheme for structural firefighting gloves. A summary of firefighter anthropometry data was published in Human Factors , and NIOSH expects to publish the detailed data on its website by the end of 2015.

With support from stakeholders and partners, NIOSH has finished collecting data on emergency medical services workers, and it is gearing up to collect data on law enforcement officers. We expect these study findings will help identify design improvements for work vehicles and PPE.

Our anthropometric research gives us significant opportunities to prevent injuries through the concept of Prevention through Design. This research also takes our findings and allows them to be applied to practical uses outside the Institute. Working with manufacturers, standards committees, trade associations, labor organizations, employers, and workers, our research can be adopted in the workplace, so that together we can help ensure workers' safety and health in today's places of employment