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Consoles, Seating & Ergonomics

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by Mike Scott

Originally published in our Nov/Dec, 2004 issue.

Modern dispatch centers by necessity are full of electronic appliances, all of which have to be interconnected and available to the dispatcher.  As the quantity of information systems increases, dispatch workstation space has shrunk in order to keep all of it within easy reach. 

It wasn’t long ago that dispatch centers – and there are still some out there today – were designed in such a way that dispatchers faced ongoing repetitive motion injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome as they reached to access different hardware systems they needed to use.

But times have changed.  Dispatchers want more space and less stress at their workstations.  This includes emotional and physical stress that can adversely affect a person’s health as a result of long hours spent sitting in one position.

For this reason maximizing the layout of communication centers and placing an emphasis on ergonomic consoles has become critical.  The proliferation of DRT and flat screens help to provide this comfort and additional workspace that is required in today’s dispatcher environment and console vendors offer a wide variety of ergonomically-friendly products to help ease stress.

“What we see is a need for our clients to have a console where everything is within an arm’s reach,” said Wright Line Director of Product Marketing Michael David.  “It’s not enough to just build attractive furniture and items, but it’s important that everything is adaptable through standard components.”

David, whose company is located in Worchester, Mass., said when Wright Line first meets with a client, they complete a comprehensive equipment survey.  From that point, company technicians can customize a design that provides precise solutions based on client needs.

“It’s critical to take an ergonomic approach as well and to understand the requirements of the personnel in a particular customer site,” said David.

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Of course the ability to have all console equipment within a dispatcher’s reach, “depends on the length of his or her arm,” according to Bob Vincent, vice president of sales for North Hollywood (CA)-based Moducom.  Vincent said with dispatchers being given more responsibilities, there are often too many conversion systems within that arm’s reach.

“You don’t want to worry about your CPU and other equipment competing with other resources for space,” said Vincent.  “You only have so much room within a work environment.”

Moducom offers an integrated software package called UltraCom 2000 that combines telephone, radio, and mapping data onto one or two screens, opening up more space.  Vincent said this package was designed in response to the realization that dispatchers now must handle CAD, database, telephony, mapping, paging, and a myriad of other desktop responsibilities.

And customer needs will continue to evolve in the coming years, he added.

“We deal with issues every day regarding trends and aspects that will affect our clients’ communication center,” said Vincent.  “Issues like GPS, mapping, interoperability, interagency, and networking aren’t going away and the question is how can we as a vendor accommodate these foreseeable (technological) advances.”

Vice President of Marketing and Product Management for Quebec-based CML Emergency Services John K.  Thompson believes integrated workstations are one of the trends of the future that clients are most interested in.  Under this system, many consoles applications will be removed and housed within existing applications.

Thompson said CML, a recognized innovator in 9-1-1 communications systems, is working on a conceptual integrated workstation that can allow clients to utilize dispatch data on anywhere from one to four monitors or screens based on their preferences.  And these clients are playing a major role in determining how this system is developed.

“Our customers are interested and as a result we have engaged them into the process of fact finding and research,” said Thompson.  “It doesn’t require customization on our end but we do think this concept will allow us to meet the needs of all clients looking for an integrated workstation.”

Ergonomics is an issue because computer-related injuries cost American employers an average of $135 million every day in Worker’s Compensation costs alone, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.  In addition, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome comprises 13 percent of all workplace related injuries.

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A console system’s ergonomic features are increasingly important as public safety communications administrators seek to improve employee productivity and reduce sick days.  Quality ergonomic products include standards for view distance, equipment placement within easy operator reach, keyboard height, knee-well clearance and more.

Evans Consoles Corporation in Calgary, Alberta, Canada specializes in ergonomic consoles and the company said specific features public safety dispatchers are looking for include task lighting to illuminate the work surface without creating glare on CRT or flat screen displays; personal environmental systems for individual control at each workstation; height adjustable work surfaces that reduce the incidence of repetitive task stress injuries in employees; and sit-to-stand height adjustment features ensure operator comfort in 24/7 environments. 

In essence, a well-constructed ergonomic console should optimize the human machine interface of a control system and provide users with the highest level of equipment placement flexibility in multi-headed display environments.  This link between operators and the control system hardware will enhance work performance.

Although CML is not in the furniture business, Thompson said ergonomic features can include diminishing ambient overhead lights and other features that reduce all types of physical and emotional stress.

“Proprietary hardware can be integrated into the call center and what we need to help provide is a system that interfaces in a seamless way,” he said.

Thompson predicts that in five years, consoles as we know them may not exist within the industry and that within 10 years, voice recognition will be a common technology utilized in communication centers.

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Rani Lueder, author of the 1998 book, The Hidden Injuries, said chronic symptoms among computer users are at an all-time high.  Almost half of employees at most computer-based workplaces he has visited in recent years experience chronic symptoms often involving multiple body parts.

“Ergonomic problems are particularly protracted with smaller [organizations] that typically can lack the infrastructure and resources to monitor or accommodate employees,” said Lueder in his book.  “My research suggests that when you increase time at the computer from two hours to four hours a work day, you approximately double the pain rate.  When you increase time yet again from four hours to six hours a day at the computer, you once more almost double the collective pain rate.”

So how does this effect the dispatch environment?  Lueder readily acknowledges that public safety dispatchers are at a high risk for injuries if ergonomically friendly console solutions aren’t provided. 

When it’s your job to sit in one location handling many responsibilities for hours at a time, communications center administrators should make the financial commitment to meet the ergonomic needs of their employees, Lueder said.

“Have someone do your research and find out whose products make the most sense for your environment,” he said.

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Outside of more space and more attention to ergonomics, there are more trends in the console industry.  David said one is that communication center employees appreciate the psychological need to feel better about the work environment but providing a non-hazardous atmosphere.  In the near future, David sees further trends emerging as customer needs.

“I think there will be more demand for portability along with a need to provide large standardized displays,” said David, citing LCDs with graphics and plasma screen televisions as examples.  “These pieces of equipment need to be displayed and mounted in ways convenient to our customers within a dispatch center.”

In the coming years, networking and Voice-over IP will continue to evolve.  There is a growing desire to handle telephone calls over the Internet, which will result in other industry changes, according to Vincent.  “There’s a push to go that route because of the convenience, but the government and the FCC has to become involved first,” he said.

The radio dispatch console is the central integrating element of a communication and control system.  By consolidating the control of multiple resources, a single operator or a number of operators working in parallel can efficiently manage a complex combination of communication assets in an efficient and effective way.

David said consoles should be organized efficiently.  For example they should integrate with multiple processors, CRTs, flat screen displays, keyboards, and other specialized equipment preventing accidental disconnections and hardware tampering. 

As for the ergonomic landscape, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and some states have regulations that set out the obligations of employers to prevent injuries caused by repetitive motion, lighting, seating, or other ergonomic causes.  For the past four years the agency has attempted to finalize new regulations that would strike a balance between business and workers – but without success. 

New regulations have been proposed under both President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush.  Since December 2002, OSHA regulations have been in place as “guidelines,” without any enforcement provisions.

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Thompson said it is the responsibility of vendors like CML to work together to provide efficient and high-quality solutions.  He plans to work with furniture, software and console vendors to help meet these needs – such as joining national or international councils or organizations as a method of information sharing.

“Our goal is to build technologies that allow dispatchers and our clients not to be distracted while they are at work,” said Thompson.  “As we move forward, first responders will become more responsible for interacting with the public and governmental agencies so their responsibilities will only increase.”

At the end of the day, an efficient and high-quality console system that takes ergonomic needs into account can be a valuable investment in a communications center.  Most importantly, these systems are better equipped to handle the rigors of 24/7 operations for years to come – while protecting your dispatchers who are charged with servicing the public.

Mike Scott writes for several national and regional publications.  He previously worked in the public safety software industry. 

 

Sidebar:

The Importance of Ergonomics

Ergonomics is a buzzword not just in public safety but also in the business world in general as employers attempt to reduce the number of staff sick and personal days taken.  There is no way to absolutely prevent musculoskeletal products from occurring, but here are some steps to help reduce the risk:

·                     Adjust your workstation and your position every few minutes

·                     Bring in an expert on workplace exercises for arms, hands, fingers, legs, feet, shoulders, etc.  (local health care organizations likely can
                      send in a speaker)

·                     Improve lighting in a communications center

·                     Improve your posture

·                     More frequent but shorter breaks should be encouraged

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