Buyer Beware: Ergonomic Claims May Be Inaccurate, Exaggerated

SAN JOSE, Calif. - Playing on concerns about workplace injuries, a growing number of office-equipment manufacturers are selling products using inflated and sometimes inaccurate claims about their salutary effects, experts say.

The latest buzzword is "ergonomics," the science of making equipment fit people safely. Many manufacturers say their products are ergonomically correct without any research behind the claim, specialists in the field say.

There aren't any legal standards for what can be called ergonomic. And many people who call themselves experts don't have any formal training in ergonomics, an interdisciplinary field that includes engineering, biomechanics and medicine and industrial psychology. Scientifically trained consultants are only now establishing a national certification program for people who want to call themselves ergonomists. In the meantime, anyone with a business card can claim expertise.

"More often than not, the ergonomic label is applied to a device without any backing for it," said Dr. David Rempel, director of the University of California's Ergonomics Laboratory in Richmond. "There is almost no testing of devices to see if they will be effective."

The proliferation of devices with an ergonomic label comes in response to a giant increase in repetitive motion injuries nationally - from 18 percent of all workplace illnesses in 1980 to nearly 60 percent in 1990. Such injuries are often caused by computer work or other repetitive tasks in the office or manufacturing areas. Employees have begun suing their companies and manufacturers for poor equipment design. And there's been an increase in government regulation.

"Employers have a lot of pressure on them to go out and purchase all this new equipment," said Tami Carver, program director at the Repetitive Motion Institute at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose. "There is good and bad. Often the consumer doesn't have the knowledge to sort it out."

Some equipment manufacturers agree with the criticism. The term ergonomic "is being abused greatly," said Drew Congleton, an owner of the Chair Works, a Texas company that sells chairs for people with back problems. "Most chairs are made by architects or interior designers concerned about appearance with no ergonomic background," he said.

But others said they are being criticized for experimenting in a new field. Repetitive strain injury "is such a new problem . . . they (the experts) don't know what the answer is," said John Lechman of Nova Office Furniture Inc., designer of a work station that ergonomic experts have criticized.

Not everyone selling ergonomic equipment is a charlatan. Some excellent, although expensive, equipment has been developed by companies that have invested in ergonomic research.

But a sizable group has simply slapped a new label on their products as a marketing tool in the United States, where only general voluntary industry design standards exist, experts said.

False or exaggerated claims are only too common.

In an attempt to profit from fears about computer radiation, some companies are touting computer screens to shield workers from electromagnetic fields.

Such devices can block electronic charges that cause static electric shocks but not the electromagnetic radiation that has caused public concern, experts said.

A number of supposed ergonomic solutions could actually injure workers, said Carver of Valley Medical Center. Wrist-rests are designed to cushion and support the wrist while the employee is typing on a computer keyboard. One wrist-rest now on the market is made of a thin plastic with a sharp seam on the end. Carver said it flips up when placed under the keyboard, and the sharp edge hits the user at the vulnerable median nerve.