Michael Patkin's

  From anthropology to ergonomics

Publication history, Reflections & comments



Surgery & ergonomics


Information design

Editorials, book reviews





YOU may well ask what a surgeon is doing writing about ergonomics and modern office technology. I did. Even more confusing was his explanation which started with descriptions of legless surgeons, one-inch thick scientists sitting at microscopes, and cavemen wielding clubs. Could this smartly-dressed man laden with handouts perhaps be a member of an action group for the Year of the Disabled?

Drawings first

With the aid of man's earliest form of communication — drawings — and many a written word, the light started to filter through. Michael Patkin, surgeon at the Whyalla Hospital, South Australia, has written a number of papers, or 'exhibits' as he calls them, with the help of artist Stephen Stanley. In words and pictures, the impractical designs of some instru­ments, seating, and operative dispositions in microsurgery have been described. The 'limp covered' editions to date include Ergonomics and the Operating Microscope, Selection and Care of Microsurgica! Instruments, and various editorial articles in MIMS Hospital Equipment and Supplies 1979-80.

From these studies Dr Patkin looked at other applications of ergonomics — the science of man at work — and was very soon knocking on the office door. At Comtec 81 in Adelaide, he talked on the importance of ergonomics in the modern office. This he sees as both a sequel to his previous research in ergonomics, as well as a study from the medical point of view of the importance of practical, comfortable, and safe equipment and working environment.

Dr Patkin is not, of course, breaking new ground. He says the data and the expertise needed to shape the modern office 4to lit human use are now widely availa­ble. What is lacking most is aware­ness, both by management and by workers, of these resources, and the need to make use of them.


"Although this awareness is growing," Dr Patkin says, "there is a need to introduce the subject of ergonomics to those not familiar with it, and to acquaint them with the resources available in this field."
One such resource he cites, call­ing it the "bible' for every modern office designer and manager, is Visual Display Terminals, by Cakir, Hart and Stewart.

"Its cost of $52 will be regained quickly in the first few days of applying its information," he says. "South Australia is fortunate to have a trained ergonomist, baseat the Health Commission's Occupational Health Branch, in the person of Trevor Shinnick, whose consultant advice already has benefited many branches of industry here".

The first aspect of the modern office discussed by Dr Patkin in his paper is equipment design.
Coming to grips with handles, he says many items are designed for steel fingered pixies, rather than average
human beings.

"S" words count

Out of a checklist of 40 criteria for items used in the power grip, he gives the following 10 "S" words as the most important: size, shape, surface, siting, surround­ings, stiffness (resistance), signify­ing function, signalling device (warnings), special features (for exceptional cases), and safety. "To these should be added the non-ergonomic criterion of struc­ture, comprising durability, main­tenance, and modification, and the final requirement for validating, that the handle used does in prac­tice match the task," he says."It is also necessary to consider aspects of the MAN element —age, skills, motivation, and even the ethics of his activities."

Touching next on keyboards, Dr Patkin says that much work is done seated at a keyboard, and probably a screen. However, the user is largely at the mercy of sup­pliers and the product design available.
Pocket calculators are most often guilty here, with keys that are too slack, too stiff or too close together.
On larger machines with alphanumeric keys, thickness and detachability are important features. As food for thought, he serves up the question of the tradi­tional "QWERTY" key arrange­ment, where perhaps habit has won out over logic.

"Office equipment should be catering for the mobility and change in society today," he says. "With servicing, upgrading, and replacement, as well as the chang­ing work area, it is essential for equipment to be portable, light, and small enough to be carried by office staff, have adequate clearance underneath and no sharp edges."


Slipping into workplace layout there are four main areas to be studied: seating, desks, display screens and document holders. Starting at the seat of the problem, there are four features essential to avoid the too-often­coined caricature of the hunched desk worker. Castors are needed for mobility, but watch for the carpet-hungry variety; seat height must be easily adjustable; size is standard, but shaping is important, especially at the front of the seat, which should sink two or three centimetres, and be covered with a porous fabric which is replacable or easily cleaned; and finally, for contented and productive staff, there is the question of lumbar support —ability to swivel, be adjusted, and the need for armrests, or not. The journalist pauses at this stage to study, with some amazement, the somewhat deficient example currently in use, and which could only be described as the bottom line.

No neck  pain

Now, add to that seat one desk — but remember that the worker has legs. Height should be aimed at productivity not neck pain, and there should be space for constantly used supplies. When switching onto display screens, siting and legibility are the two most important features, with the glare aspect standing out. The angle on document holders is that there are many and varied examples available, and that they are obviously better than having documents lying flat on the table. Illuminating the environmental aspect of office life, Dr Patkin puts lighting first. Quality and intensity must be considered, as well as glare. To avoid future eye prob­lems, and possible legal repercus­sions, an eye test should be made before first employment.

Even more confusing was his explanation which started with descriptions of legless surgeons, one-inch thick scientists sitting at microscopes, and cavemen wield­ing clubs. Could this smartly-dressed man laden with handouts perhaps be a member of an action group for the Year of the Disabled?

(Page 14 — Pacific Computer Weekly, August 28-September 3, 1981)

Next on the list is equipment and supply quality, where regular replacement of fabric ribbons on typewriters and printers is urged. In the final sweep, other not-to­be-missed considerations are: temperature, humidity, ventilation, odors, and last but not least, the visual aspect.

"Humans are again emerging as the focus of the workplace, after the onslaught of the Industrial Revolution. In the office world it is important to remember the slighted worker who is already insecure from fears of redundancy, radiation or eye damage, and all the while at the centre of a rapidly changing work-place."

Waxing lyrical, Dr Patkin con­cludes: "If our adventure into the future, on the wings of human imagination and enterprise, is to be a fulfilment and not a nightmare, it is time now to look at ourselves and our fellows at work, scientifically as well as in other ways."

FOOTNOTE: If you are wondering about the reference to legless surgeons and one-inch thick scientists, Dr Patkin was merely pointing out that much of the equipment used in surgery appears to have been designed with these types of people in mind. As for the cavemen wielding clubs — they are for decoration only, a kind of poetic licence.



This reporter from Pacific Computer Weekly waxed rather lyrical, embellishing my own usual syntax. I shouldn't complain, when she described me as " smartly-dressed man laden with handouts".

From anthropology to ergonomics


Michael Patkin and Stephen Stanley

Pages 5, 9, 14 — Pacific Computer Weekly, August 28-September 3, 1981

Caroline Walford continues her review of the issues highlighted at the inaugural Comtec Information Technology Fair in Adelaide.