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Put your back into it-My brilliant career

10 October 2010

Dale Kennedy is an ergonomist and the ergonomics director at consulting firm Ergomax. He gave Margaret Harris some straight answers.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

A lawyer.

So what happened?

I attended two lectures at university and realised law was not for me. Sometimes learning what you don't want to do is more important than learning what you want to do.

What does an ergonomist do?

An ergonomist looks at how working environments affect people. We consider what the human body can and wants to do and design the work environment appropriately to minimise risk exposure, optimise efficiency and maximise profits. Ergonomics marries the occupational health and safety of the workers to the fundamental needs of any business - that of making money.

Are there lots of jobs for ergonomist?

The industry is growing rapidly. That said, there are a few qualified ergonomists who just cannot find employment.

In my personal experience, looking at the number of women qualifying with a master's, the numbers definitely favour women.

What qualifications do you need and where do you train?

The qualifications will vary from country to country. South Africa is busy establishing its criteria. The accepted qualification internationally is a master's degree with three to five years' working experience. Many universities offer undergraduate ergonomic courses, but the only post-graduate degree in ergonomics is through Rhodes University.

How does ergonomic design differ from other tyoes of design?

For example, an engineer will design looking at energy transfer (chemical or physical), a psychologist will look at behaviour; an ergonomist will look at the whole system.

How do the chairs and desks we use in the office affect our productivity?

Dramatically. What people are not aware of is the long-term impact to their bodies when working with inappropriate furniture.

What are the effects of using poorly designed chairs and desks?

I personally believe the increase in lower back complaints as we age in part can be linked to the seated posture.

How do computer keyboards and mouses fit into ergonomics?

The rule is to have a keyboard as flat as possible - the little legs on the keyboard were designed so that people can see the keyboard. Typing with these legs up will cause awkward postures of the wrists. A negative keyboard tilt is recommended if you can touch type, however, this requires a keyboard tray and height-adjustable desk.

The mouse, like the keyboard, is responsible for many injuries. People not adequately trained in ergonomics will recommend different types of mouse, without considering the bigger picture.

What are the most common mistakes that people make when sitting at a computer?

There is mouse drift - where the mouse travels further and further away from the body, straining the shoulder. People sit too close to their screens - rule of thumb, sit at least an arm's length away, assuming you have good vision. Get computer-dedicated glasses, don't use bifocals. Most people sit too low, due to fixed arm rests, non-height adjustable chairs, and this strains their shoulders.

What do ergonomists earn?

Because it is such a new discipline there are no fixed guidelines. A good salary range would be from R10000 to R50000 a month.

What is the worst part of your job?

Flying to remote parts of the world assessing horrendous working conditions. I don't think people appreciate how hard some people work for very little money!

If you weren't doing this, what job would you like to have?

A professional triathlete.

What would people find surprising about your job?

It's not as glamorous as one thinks. Ergonomics is not just about office compliance. We work in mines, steel manufacturing, bakeries and forestry.

How to get training to boost your career

To ensure you get the most from a training course, begin implementing what you have learnt as soon as you return to work, advises Liza van Wyk, CEO of management training organisation AstroTech.

Here is some more advice from Van Wyk:

Critical personal assessment is essential. For example, you are a great administrator but believe you would be a better manager. So take a hard look at your strengths and weaknesses: you know your financial skills are good, but you have persistent problems managing staff. In other words, to get ahead, you need to strengthen your skills in human interaction first, and then brush up on other areas;
It's not just about attending courses: you need to read up on your chosen field to keep abreast of the latest trends. Education isn't something you finished with at school or university: you need to keep teaching yourself throughout your life;
Choose a training company that has the closest fit with your needs. Examine precisely what topics are covered in the course, the quality of the facilitator being used and if the programme is in a learning-friendly environment;
Before you book, look at testimonials and feedback forms from others who have attended the course you have chosen, or different courses. Assess client lists and find out if any of your colleagues have attended courses run by the same company. There are a number of independent websites, such as, that give feedback on problematic service providers;
Training is expensive, so attend your course diligently, take lots of notes, and ask questions. Network with fellow course attendees: you can build valuable relationships with fellow experts in your field;
Choose a course that gives follow-up counselling or advice, or which has a friendly facilitator who is happy to help with queries that come up after the course; and:
Stay in touch with the people you meet on courses.

Source: Put your back into it