Nate Fethke: Defining ergonomics in terms of health and safety

A portrait of Nate Fethke, professor of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Iowa College of Public Health.

Students taking Dr. Nate Fethke’s courses learn that a world of difference exists between products labeled “ergonomic” and their actual benefits.

Hand tools and other devices are examined and evaluated under the guidance of Fethke, who was experienced as an engineer in consumer product manufacturing before pursuing his Ph.D. in Occupational and Environmental Health. He is now an associate professor in the same department where he earned that degree, at the University of Iowa College of Public Health.

“One of the things I try to teach is that there is a distinct difference between the word ‘ergonomic’ as used in marketing and ‘ergonomic’ in terms of health and safety,” Fethke said, citing the ubiquitous use of the term for gardening and hand tools, chairs, computer keyboards and more. “In reality, you may end up paying a premium for features with little or no health and safety benefit.”

Bird feeders, cat dishes and cattle prods are among the dubious products Fethke has found that are labeled “ergonomic.” Students in his class learn to evaluate tools based on the needs of their intended application in a work place.

Fethke, who teaches a series of courses in occupational ergonomics, earned his Bachelor of Science degree and master’s in biomedical engineering, both from the UI. His research interests include characterizing the relationships between the physical aspects of work and workers’ musculoskeletal health, developing and evaluating interventions to improve workplace ergonomics, and developing new methods and strategies for estimating exposure to physical risk factors.

Fethke’s academic research offers a direct connection to on-the-job decisions that impact construction and other industries, including farming. He is in the midst of a study conducting research on musculoskeletal disorders among farmers.

“Most of the information out there is that agriculture is the exposure,” Fethke said, noting that farming is often cited as one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. “Except for a few subsectors, such as dairy, we don’t necessarily know what it is about agriculture that’s causing the problem. The intervention, then, is to tell farmers not to farm.”

Seeking a more viable intervention, Fethke’s team is conducting research with 500 farmers in nine states to track their health experience and the tasks they do over time. His team is also traveling to many of the participants’ farms to take measurements, such as muscle activity, posture and vibration, while they go about their daily chores.

The team has made nearly 100 visits so far, logging more than 21,000 miles of driving in the past 2 1/2 years. Some of the results have shown that agricultural producers are affected by back pain; half of the farmers responding to the questionnaire reported experiencing a recent episode of low back pain severe enough to affect their ability to work. The study, to be completed in 2016, is the first of its kind to directly estimate exposures in the hopes of better understanding how to design interventions to make farming safer, Fethke said.

Fethke serves as Deputy Director of the UI Healthier Workforce Center for Excellence and has a secondary appointment as assistant professor in Biomedical Engineering. He also directs the Ergonomics Training Program at the UI Heartland Center for Occupational Health and Safety, a program that emphasizes public health.

“It’s a true interdisciplinary blend of engineering with public health,” Fethke said. “That’s what makes the program unique.”

— Profile by Cindy Hadish