Annie Barnwell is truly a jack of all trades. There’s hardly an industry she hasn’t touched during her career as an ergonomist. From automotive production to poultry, law courts to injection molding, emergency services to recreation, Annie’s done it all.
But no matter the job, Annie always has her eye on the same thing: interactions between users and their equipment. The variables she looks at stay the same; the difference is how they’re applied.
“The real cool thing is that my role is the same everywhere,” she says.
“The biggest difference is language and terminology. No matter what the industry is, I’m still looking at people and what they’re interacting with.”
Annie thrives on the challenge of figuring a job out and breaking down its components. It’s her attention to detail that allows her to shine in her role. She likes to know absolutely everything about someone’s role so she can fully grasp the larger picture.
And there’s a lot more to that than simply observing a task. Annie comes into every job armed with questions; she needs to know if the work is repetitive, what equipment is available, how often someone works, how long they’ve been in that role, their break schedule, psychological stressors, even what they do outside of work that might compound the strains certain tasks put on the body… the list goes on.
Sometimes, if Annie can improve someone’s posture, they’re automatically able to lift or handle more. But, it’s not always that simple.
“You never know what will become relevant during an assessment and help you get to the root cause of the problem. Once you figure out how to solve that root cause, everything will fall into place,” she says.
Technical, Objective Ergonomics
Annie takes a technical and objective approach, looking at numbers, identifying what exceeds ergonomic guidelines, and then making informed decisions.
When working with firefighters, Annie might start by measuring the weight of a hose, but that can’t necessarily be used to determine the load someone will bear while battling a blaze.
How does friction act on the hose? Are they full of water when you pull them? How many people hold them?
It takes time and a keen eye to break this down. If someone is experiencing discomfort at work, many people tend to think they are doing something wrong and need to adapt. But, if the problem is actually the design of the job, trying to compensate for that can exacerbate the problem even further.
It can be even more challenging to assess less predictable jobs, such as working with children. Kids are about as unpredictable as things come. They run, jump, want to be picked up, throw new problems at you all the time, and need a lot of guidance.
On a children’s sailing team Annie worked with, the boats sometimes tip over. This means the kids need to be lifted out of the water and the boat needs to be uprighted.
This is no easy feat, but then again, neither is Annie’s task in figuring out how to measure those forces and provide a job demands analysis for the instructors.
Though, when you see it all, like Annie does, you end up accumulating a wealth of expertise that can guide you in almost any circumstance.
“I love the variety in industry and love most that I get to see different types of tools in action,” she says. “Sometimes I can apply that to other workplaces; I can learn in one place and take that knowledge to the next one.”
Simple Ergonomic Solutions
At the end of the day, the best solution is the simplest one that works. If a stack of paper under your monitor brings it to the right height, then that’s a great fix.
And a lot of the time it’s a pretty fun job. The last year alone has seen Annie out on sail boats, doing ceramic work to test forces, looking at strains on sound technicians, and doing assessments on cheese makers, welders, and metallurgical lab workers.
To top it all off, Annie brings her expertise into the classroom teaching course in Occupational Health and Safety at the University of Calgary. So whatever your problem, Annie’s got a solution.
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