Cornell researcher says poorly designed offices can have a huge toll on health, productivity

Gary J Wood via flickr.com
December 17, 2012

The health care industry in upstate New York is undergoing some rapid transformations. In this series, the Innovation Trail reports on the shifts in the region's health care sector.

 

At Cornell University's Ergonomics Center, professor Alan Hedge demonstrates new designs for a computer mouse.

"This here is also a new kind of mouse technology here." One looks like an old-fashioned desktop penholder. There's one that looks like the throttle on a airplane. And another is long and flat.

Hedge's lab aims to improve details of the workplace, things like the mouse or chairs or the lighting, so employees are healthier. About 39% of the American work force, or around 55 million people, spend their days in offices. And that number is likely to keep going up.

Hedge says there's a huge toll on health because of things like poorly designed chairs or a stressful environment."So back injuries, neck, shoulder, hand injuries, together these musculoskeletal injuries cost an enormous amount of money."

Hedge says the bill comes to about $65 billion a year. And then there's the cost to companies from decreased productivity. In a study originally published in 2006, Hedge found that when the thermostat is turned up from 70 degrees to the mid-70s, workers spend far more time at their desks and make far fewer mistakes.

"It's hard to know whether there are long-term consequences of being overcooled in your building, there may be but nobody's done that research."

"And so the next part of it is to build this laser device and that's what we're going to be doing in here."

In Binghamton University's bioengineering labs, Professor Ken McLeod is building a personal heating device that uses a low-frequency laser to warm people up. McLeod says he has proof that a warmer office will make people healthier.
In particular, he links cold indoor temperatures to obesity.

According to McLeod, the traditional approach to fighting obesity by controlling calorie intake isn't the best way to do it.

He says the main benefit of exercising 30 minutes a day, five days a week, is that it increases a person's core body temperature. And when your body temperature goes up, you produce more growth hormones.

"But you can see below 37 degrees, we make no growth hormone. You push up even half a degree and you can see this curve coming up fast and by 38 degrees, you're pushing up a maximum amount of growth hormone, it's gone up more than 100-fold."

Growth hormones increase a person's metabolism and that keeps their weight in check.

McLeod wonders, why should we settle for exercising 30 minutes a day to get our body temperature up, when we spend 40 hours a week in the office, letting our bodies do what they have to to keep warm.

"If we're not exercising enough to maintain our core temperature, we're going to do something else and what that something else is is insulating ourselves from the cold. We lay down white body fat under our skin."

McLeod's personal heater works by directing warmth right at a person, instead of heating up the air around them. McLeod estimates that his heater, which looks like a typical floor lamp, would only need about 15 watts of power, compared to more than a thousand watts for a space heater.

"And then once we have a floor lamp, we can do a desk lamp, once we have a desk lamp, we can do a ceiling lamp, once we have a ceiling lamp, we can put controls to make it move around and track people."

McLeod thinks it will take two years before his heater is on the market.