J. L. Mueller, Inc. Universal Design at Work      
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Case Studies

Case Study :: Making the Job Easier for Everyone

There are many examples of successful job accommodation benefiting all workers. Employers in these situations commonly ask, "Why didn't we do this in the first place?" With growing emphasis on reducing risk of cumulative and repetitive stress injuries due to poor work and tool design, supervisors might well ask this question. The supervisor in the case below realized the importance of a simple tool in preventing injuries to other employees, as well as in accommodating the worker with the disability. In situations like these, employees formerly seen as "different" due to their disabilities help to identify job and workplace design problems affecting all workers. Their ergonomic needs become effective templates for improvements in job and workplace design for all…

Photo of a man and a woman kneeling on a factory floor and handling a 4-foot diameter coil of metal strip.Robert experienced moderate limitations of judgment, balance, and coordination. Through his vocational rehabilitation counselor, he was hired by a window manufacturer to cut rolls of metal strips into short pieces with hand snips. The supervisor felt this would be a good entry level job for Robert, since there was plenty of margin for error - strips could vary from 9" to 24" in length. This job had previously been performed in a kneeling position on the floor, since the full roll of metal strip was large and heavy, and once the clips binding the roll of strip were cut, the roll uncoiled suddenly and became very unwieldy to move. Understandably, no employee enjoyed this job.

Photo of a man and a woman standing next to a workbench and holding a 4-foot diameter coil of metal strip.The supervisor first demonstrated the job to Robert, showing the approximate length needed and how to avoid the sharp end of the metal roll as it sprang back to the spool when each cut was made. She also made two marks on the floor to clearly indicate the proper strip length. Despite the demonstrations, Robert's balance and coordination limitations made it difficult for him to kneel on the floor and avoid cuts from the recoiling metal strip. Both he and his supervisor became frustrated from several attempts to improve the situation.

Photo of a man cutting 9" strips from a coil of metal strip held in a large-scale wooden tape dispenser.Finally, a desktop tape dispenser provided the inspiration for a simple and successful accommodation. A very large "tape dispenser" was fabricated from plywood to hold the tape at a comfortable height above the floor. A roller allowed the end of the metal tape to be slid through a gate to a stop exactly 9" from a slot for the snips. Presented with this tool, Robert was able to immediately - and safely - perform the job more quickly and efficiently than other employees, and without any waste, since each strip was no longer than the minimum length.

In this case, the supervisor really did say, "Why didn't we do this in the first place?" Both she and her other employees were surprised at the ease with which Robert was now able to perform a task which had been difficult and undesirable for other employees. Not surprisingly, the supervisor suggested that all workers use this tool. Those who did found this job, which had previously been the least desirable in the company, among the most preferred jobs.

Case Study :: Herman Miller, Inc.

Photo of the cover of the Herman Miller Designing for Accessibility Guide.A Universal Design approach was used by office furniture system manufacturer Herman Miller, Inc. in helping their customers comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and gain control of disability management. Herman Miller, Inc., based in Zeeland, Michigan and second in size only to Steelcase among office furniture manufacturers, had a strong reputation among its customers and wanted to maintain it. (Mueller, 1997)

In response to their customers' concerns, Herman Miller, Inc. produced a videotape and an illustrated guide to office planning and design entitled "Designing for Accessibility" (Herman Miller, 1995). These materials included recommendations for creating a workplace as usable for workers with disabilities as for those without disabilities. This workplace also includes flexibility for making specific accommodations for employees who need reasonable accommodation.

In the early 1990's, Herman Miller's customers felt the impact of The Americans with Disabilities Act in several ways. Public businesses and state and local government facilities were required to ensure that their facilities were accessible to people with disabilities. This meant that interiors, office systems, and furniture designed and supplied by Herman Miller to these customers had to comply with the accessibility guidelines of the new law.

Furthermore, the ADA required that employers make "reasonable accommodation" for employees with disabilities. This meant that a Herman Miller work station might have to accommodate an employee who could be blind, deaf, a wheelchair user, or limited in a variety of other ways.

At the same time, a recession was causing American businesses to postpone investments in new facilities and equipment. Seeking to make the most of their investments, Herman Miller's customers began to preface their contacts with sales reps with "How do your products comply with the ADA?"

Since the ADA does not include standards for products like office furniture, Herman Miller products by themselves could not comply with this law. Instead, the law was written for compliance by organizations. Herman Miller set out to address their customers' question by developing a program to communicate its philosophy of complying with the ADA through workplace design that eliminates barriers that all workers face.

For example, a worker using a wheelchair might have difficulty retrieving a thick file folder from the top drawer of a 4-drawer file cabinet. But a coworker with short stature might have similar difficulties, as would a worker with wrist fatigue after long hours of keyboard work. The philosophy also included the capability to make "reasonable accommodation" for disabled employees without undue effort or expense.

The company also developed an Applications Guide to help customers understand the requirements of the ADA, the incentives for returning employees with disabilities to the job, and the features of office furniture products that make "reasonable accommodation" possible. Both the video and the Applications Guide were made available on request through Herman Miller's sales network.

Illustrations of Herman Miller chair, desk, cabinet, and mobile chest.
Thorough analysis of Herman Miller products and their usefulness to workers with disabilities was needed for production of their Application Guide. This effort revealed that Herman Miller's traditional strong attention to established ergonomic principles was a good beginning. The flexibility of their products in meeting a variety of needs also helped customers to meet unique ergonomic needs of workers with disabilities.

Significantly, Herman Miller's competitors also realized the importance of providing guidance to their customers regarding workers with disabilities. Haworth, Inc. developed an ADA Handbook, which described the requirements of the law and, like Herman Miller, illustrated ways in which Haworth products could be used effectively to comply with these requirements. The Knoll Group produced a guidebook entitled Workplace Issues: Universal Design and the ADA. Steelcase, in its award-winning design for a self-contained workspace called "Personal Harbor", incorporated accessibility guidelines into the parameters of the project.

Mueller, J. (2002). "Environmental Avccess in the Workplace". In D. Olson and F. DeRuyter (Eds.) Clinician's Guide to Assistive Technology. Mosby, Inc., St. Louis.

"Environmental Access in the Workplace"
James Mueller
Clinician's Guide to Assistive Technology

Case Studies:
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Making the Job Easier for Everyone

Herman Miller, Inc.