Grad students interview Irene Mueller
Grad students Ilsa Mollenkopf  (left) and Theresa Johansson (center) interview Irene Mueller (seated), assistant professor of health information management, as Todd Watson (right), assistant professor of physical therapy, monitors their progress.

CULLOWHEE – Ergonomics. It's a funny word for making your body interact safely and effectively with the things you use every day. But the pain you can get from the failure to apply ergonomic principles is no laughing matter.

According to some estimates, musculoskeletal disorders among U.S. workers cost businesses $20 to $40 billion in workers' compensation every year. When you add lost time from work, reduced productivity, retraining time and other variables, the cost of work-related injuries rises to $170 billion annually.

That's why students in Western Carolina University's graduate program in physical therapy learn to assess workplace ergonomics and identify conditions that can lead to repetitive stress injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome. And they're swamped with study participants when they call for campus volunteers each year. Working in pairs, the students visit 10 to 12 offices, write reports, and recommend improvements. This year, for the first time, they'll return to each office in a month to see if the volunteers actually used their suggestions to improve the ergonomic conditions. 

“This service-learning project is great, not only for the participants, but also for the students,” said Todd Watson, assistant professor of physical therapy, as he supervised the work of a team in Irene Mueller's health information management office. “The students get a more varied experience than a lab experiment could offer, they get to interact with real people in real office settings, they suggest useful interventions, and they get to see whether their ideas worked.”

At the team's suggestion, Mueller moved her phone to a different place on her desk, a small change which she says has made a big difference. “I was glad to have the ergonomic assessment done,” she said. “It was a good experience for [me], and it is also great for the students.”

For more about Western's master's degree program in physical therapy, go to http://www.wcu.edu/aps/pt/ .

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Last modified: Monday, December 20, 2004
Copyright 2004 by Western Carolina University