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(February 21, 2002, Gazette)

Ergonomist latest member of kinetics school
Heavy lifting ahead

Scott MacKinnon

Photo by Deborah Inkpen
Scott MacKinnon’s research examines how the musculo-skeletal system functions under load.


The School of Human Kinetics and Recreation recently welcomed the latest member to its team. Scott MacKinnon, an ergonomist, is its newest assistant professor. Mr. MacKinnon’s research primarily examines how the musculo-skeletal system functions under load and to better understand work efficiency and injury mechanisms. For Mr. MacKinnon the opportunity to work at Memorial represented a chance to have an impact on the school’s new focus on kinesiology and to shift perceptions about the science of ergonomics.

The International Ergonomics Association defines ergonomics as the scientific discipline concerned with the fundamental understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance.

“Ergonomics in its early stages was basically about looking at work-related injuries. It looked at the micro-ergonomics aspects, focussing on the worker and the task at hand,” said Mr. MacKinnon. “There are obviously benefits associated with changing workstations and making recommendations for improved task design in order to reduce injury.

“Over the last 10 years, ergonomics has become more of an applied discipline and has brought a lot of stakeholders together, such as industrial psychologists, management, the accounting aspects of business and, of course, engineering. When you look at how multi-disciplinary it is, really we should be practicing ergonomics more from a macro-ergonomic or socio-technical perspective. People from the human kinetics and kinesiology fields tended to naturally migrate towards ergonomics. What they learned in the areas of biomechanics, work physiology and sports psychology, where you try to maximize performance, also lent itself to work settings where you try to optimize performance.”

Mr. MacKinnon cites Steve Casey’s book, Set Phasers on Stun, which documents how poor workstation design contributed to global disasters including the sinking of Exxon Valdez and the explosion at the Bhopal gas plant. Ergonomics has many implications for business on the production side from the quality of a product to customer and job satisfaction.

“Ergonomists look at questions like: can we make something work more efficiently? Some people think ergonomists want to eliminate jobs – to mechanize everything. But that’s not our goal; we want to help employ people in happy safe environments.”

Before he arrived at Memorial in December, Mr. MacKinnon had been working for over six years at Rhodes University in South Africa. During that time he was working towards his PhD in biomedical engineering with an emphasis in ergonomics at the University of Cape Town and is awaiting news of the outcome of his dissertation. Prior to South Africa, he completed his M.Sc. in biomechanics at Dalhousie University and spent the last seven years at Dalhousie, Saint Mary’s and Mount St. Vincent’s Universities – primarily in the School of Physiotherapy at Dalhousie.

“My research in the past several years has focused on heavy materials handling and measures of biomechanical, physiological and psychophysical responses to work. Much of this has been laboratory-based and under well-controlled circumstances, necessary to answer hypothesis-based research questions,” he said.

Mr. MacKinnon hopes to broaden his research capabilities by working with his colleagues in Kinetics but also in Engineering and Business and to secure resources to establish a mobile lab capable of collecting kinematics (motion), kinetics (forces) and electromyography (electrical activity of muscles) data.

“I hope to work in-situ – so I can go where real workers are doing real work and compare this to laboratory-based benchmark data – all this to see if one can suggest ergonomic intervention programs that improve productivity and decrease the risk of injury,” said Mr. MacKinnon.

It would seem he has a heavy workload ahead.