Ergonomic opportunity

Ergonomic opportunity

Apparently the simple paper cut and the dust-filled bookshelves are no longer the menaces of the office.

We now have to contend with a much more dangerous beast - the computer.

The proliferation of the PC and of technology in general is truly phenomenal in terms of simple scale, never mind innovative accomplishment. Yet the alacrity and complexity of the changes taking place are causing a cautious reassessment of the consequences of the infiltration of computers into our everyday lives, and the potential disruption and disharmony inherent in the ergonomic relationship between human and machine.

The concept, and the ever-increasing reality of the computer as a health risk, has inevitably led to the boom of the counteractive ergonomic industry that provides users and businesses with peace of mind and hopefully some real protection from the dangers of the paperless office.

In mercenary terms, where there is fear and uncertainty there is always profit, and the local channel is well prepared for a wave of health-conscious and environmentally friendly computer users who are now eyeing their office PCs suspiciously and bounding out of ergonomic chairs to do yoga stretches every 15 minutes.

The most obvious threat is the possibil-ity of sustaining a repetitive strain injury, a circumstance that is inherent in the operation of any PC and the long hours spent at a workstation. Don't fear, there is a solution at hand - the ergonomic chair, adjustable desk, pivotal computer monitor and hand-friendly keyboards.

The list of human ingenuity continues with the protection of eyes against harsh lights with the development of damage prevention products such as screen silkers.

From eyestrain to repetitive injuries, it only gets worse from here, according to the Occupational Physician Association. Radiation emissions are a definite cause for concern, though as yet there is no conclusive evidence to link any ill effects to the electromagnetic fields emanating from a computer. However, the potential risk surrounding this situation is being overtly perpetuated by many companies both genuinely concerned about the potential threats to employees and those who can hear the dollar signs ringing in their ears.

Marketing strategy

The flat-panelled monitor is a prime example of how ergonomics is being used as a marketing strategy. One of the main features espoused by resellers regarding the LCD is its environmental and people friendly utilities. On average the LCD monitors use less power and basically emit no radiation - a surefire way into any health-conscious and liability-aware executive's heart, and a way to justify the often exorbitant price tags.

Solutions include screen savers that block out electromagnetic radiation and suggestions on safe distances and work practices for people constantly exposed to computers. Danita Murdoch, product manager for ergonomic distributor 3M, recognises the shift to larger monitors as an ongoing opportunity that resellers should capitalise upon. "The trend to larger size monitors means a need for larger size anti-glare screens," Murdoch rationalises, explaining that the ergonomic industry can rely on recurring business due to the ever changing face of technology.

Lucrative opportunity

The emergence of the ergonomic industry as an independent and lucrative opportunity for the channel is only a new development and can be traced back to a parallel health consciousness in the community at large. The health-conscious decade has focused upon the workplace as the cause of many health problems and the pervasiveness of technology within this space has not been overlooked. This is not surprising when you realise that the Occupational Health and Safety Administration is dubbing cumulative trauma disorders (CTRs) as the "occupational disease of the '90s".

Tony O'Sullivan, sales manager at Sydney reseller PPS Australia, has been working in the ergonomic industry since 1984 when PPS sold anti-glare mesh filters. "The market has matured since then because of two factors: legislation and the simple fact that more people are sitting in front of a computer."

In response to this concern and to vocal demands by employees, governments have been compelled into legitimising complaints and providing solutions. Enforced legislation is beginning to make an impact upon the awareness of businesses and individuals about the health risk that computers pose. According to ergonomic distributor Daisytek's marketing manager Terri Bell: "there is an increased emphasis on occupational health and safety hazards and a similar increase in the awareness of health issues and company liability."

According to statistics released by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration in 1994, CTRs were responsible for nearly two thirds of all reported illnesses, which adds up to a staggering amount a year in workers' compensation payouts. Ergonomic developer Fellowes equates these figures with a growing need to "enhance comfort levels and prevent pain from poor ergonomics. A worker that is comfortable and pain free is generally more productive," according to a Fellowes spokesperson.

Ergonomic products have already started to contribute greatly to reducing health risks to more manageable proportions. For instance, in a study performed by professor Alan Hedge, director of the Human Factors Laboratory at Cornell University in the US, a simple monitor filter can reduce eyestrain and general lethargy by as much as 40 per cent. A similar study in 1994 conducted by Emarco Product Services stated that a PC filter could block close to 100 per cent of the electromagnetic radiation generated by a computer.

Thus businesses are not grudgingly adhering to regulations - instead they appear to be embracing the help that the ergonomic industry can offer as statistics from the National Occupational Health and Safety organisation indicate a dramatic increase in the number of reports of computer-related illnesses and injuries. The protective peripherals that many resellers are pushing can be marketed through a strategy of appealing to the necessity, in the age of occupational health and safety, of providing workers with optimal conditions in which to work, which obviously means no radiation emissions and contortionist chairs. Reg Haire, general manager of Sydney reseller Mintgold, has incorporated these tactics into his marketing methodology. "Legislation has forced people into buying ergonomics and often we use this as a strategy to approach a person," explains Haire.

With these types of proven statistics and benefits on hand, businesses and individuals would be foolish not to invest in ergonomic technology and protect both the human and capital investments that they have made and improve general office efficiency.

Related risks

However, according to Daisytek's Bell, even though every individual and business that takes advantage of computers should be aware of the related risks very few are, and being the point of contact between the vendor and the end user, it is the responsibility of the distributor and reseller to inform customers of the hazards. "Because it is early days yet there is a lot of educating that needs to be done. Our marketing strategy at present is to educate the consumer by focusing on things like health risks and only then to go into the solutions available," Bell said.

Ergonomic manufacturer 3M relies upon resellers to inform consumers of potential problem areas and possible solutions. "Most of the time an individual will not know that their workstation is not set up properly and that it is contributing to aches, pains and stress. A reseller's expertise will provide value to the customer who will not forget," claims Murdoch.

PPS' O'Sullivan also concentrates on the education process but relies on the Occupational Health and Safety admin-istration and physiotherapists to get his message to potential customers. "Physiotherapists do assessments on-site with people and because they know our products they recommend them. To achieve this we do mailouts and a bit of advertising with them," states O'Sullivan.

However, according to Mintgold's Haire, the education process is far from over as businesses still do not perceive ergonomic expenses as legitimate. "Managers don't want to be seen wasting money, but the employees want it."

Thus developer Fellowes believe resellers can be a valuable participant in the initial research and development stages as they can give an indication of what the public will recognise in the market and how to present products.

Bell agrees that manufacturers must rely upon the channel to track market demands and industry dynamics and act as the line of communication so that the manufacturers can "react quickly to changes in the market. Resellers are the communication link between manufacturers and the end user."

3M also relies on the channel because "the more we understand the individual customer's needs the more involved we become in developing ergonomic products of the future".

With the entire IT industry becoming more service-orientated the simple production and resale of goods does not make the venture into ergonomics that alluring. However, Daisytek has navigated this particular hurdle by establishing a service side of business that provides customised ergonomic solutions. "Different people need different solutions," claims Bell. "Daisytek can tailor to the person/business buying the products." They can in fact create an entirely ergonomic and environmentally friendly office specific to a particular space and person. "Most workplaces are designed around the average worker. Today, needs are becoming more diverse as more and more women enter the workforce, as well as the gradual ageing of the working population, and the longer working hours the greater demand is for a comprehensive approach to workstation comfort and ergonomics," Murdoch says.

PPS utilises services to counter the growing threat that retailers like Harvey Norman and Office Works pose to them in an industry becoming more mainstream. "In some areas we just can't compete [with Harvey Norman and mass retailers] but we have an advantage over them because we can go and see a corporation and determine what they need. The service is a bit more personal," assures O'Sullivan.

An additional bonus in being an ergonomic reseller is the enormous range of raw products available due to the unenviable potential for workplace injuries and illness. So although services can add another dimension to a business, according to Haire, a reseller can survive on volume alone. Haire avoids commitment to a more service-orientated strategy as he believes that the ergonomic products he stocks are beneficial to his business because of the volume he generates. Haire states that once one employee has a screen guard the entire office will then buy one. "We sold over 200 screen guards to one company, starting with a the sale of around four."

Although some products are one-off sales a large majority have a shelf life of two to three years, making the next couple of years a prime time to become involved in the industry and replace products that were sold in the fledgling stages of ergonomic development. They also add a variety to Mintgold's expertise and range, if only to act as a motivator to "get my leg in the door for other consumable products", claims Haire.

Profit potential

This variety and the increasing numbers of players in the ergonomic market means the industry has enormous profit potential that will continue to grow parallel to the education of the public about the inherent dangers of working with computers.

However, as Fellowes states: "The ergonomic industry is quite competitive and runs on tight margins and all indications suggest that the margins will remain slim or become even slimmer."

3M is not quite so cautious and is envisaging an increase in inflation and a consequent boost to its profit margins in the 1998/99 period, although according to Murdoch these predictions depend on the increase of white collar workers and improved economic conditions.

And according to Haire, the man at the end of the equation, he has not yet had to resort to extremely low margins like some of his PC reseller counterparts. "Generally speaking I have never had to discount. I am still getting the usual 55 per cent return and am expecting the market to grow. People are becoming aware they have to have a safe environment - all businesses need is someone to take them to court and they'll realise it too."

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