Clothes washing is not a chore people find themselves dancing on their way to doing it. Weekly or bi-weekly, home or apartment house, washing has been made more difficult by the lack of attention to design ergonomics.
The design of a washing machine looks more or less the same as it did 50 years ago: a white box with an opening in the middle some 60 cm from the floor. This is ergonomically impractical, however, and means that older adults are no longer able to do their laundry at home.
I’ve written on the ergonomics and office furniture problem as it applies to women workers. There’s another area of our lives, washing machines, where the designers have failed to consider the excessive demands on our musculoskeletal frames, pain, and these machines. The problem was first outlined in the literature in the 1960s-1970s when concerns for workers in industry were outlined.
The cleaning industry was one where workers developed serious MSDs. New research has outlined this work’s problems, measurements, and potential improvements. But they also may have discovered a hidden cost, too.
Ergonomics in the home directly relate to the industry’s cost for work-related activities that result in injury. Although Worker’s Compensation or healthcare insurance pays for medical treatment incurred by injury on the job, it has been established that home-related injuries may predispose workers to injury exacerbation. These injuries, therefore, would appear to be work-related but had their genesis in the home via domestic work, which is a necessity of life.
Biomechanical risk factors exist in the home but are not usually thought of as precipitating work-related injuries. The joints, the back, and the shoulders, in particular, can be injured in the home during normal home maintenance activities.
Home Layout and Washing Machines
Some areas where design changes would appear to be needed in innovative changes involve kitchen layout and storage, kitchen utensils, and cleaning materials. Although we no longer use scrub boards or wring clothing out before hanging them up, washing machines and dryers have not eliminated stressful activities that, in the past, led physicians to refer to these injuries as “washerwoman strain syndrome.”
The syndrome has also been deemed De Quervain syndrome because of repetitive housework such as chopping vegetables, stirring and scrubbing pots, vacuuming, cleaning surfaces, drying dishes, pegging out washing, mending clothes, gardening, harvesting, and weeding.
Low back injuries are directly related to the top-end loading washing machines, typically 36 inches off the floor with a depth inside the drum of 24 inches. The person doing the laundry must flex their trunk 45 to 80° to pull a heavy load out of the machine. The average height of an American woman is 5’4″, and reaching down into the machine can be difficult.
Once washed clothing is removed, it must be lowered to the floor into a container before it is taken to the dryer. Dryers present another potential danger for body mechanics since individuals generally have to lean over with these heavy loads to place them into the dryer, necessitating a twist on their spine of 90°. It has been estimated that disc compression forces can be as high as 578 pounds during this activity.
But not all washing machines are of top-loading design. Frontloading machines present the same danger to the spine as the dryers since they similarly require bending over to remove wet laundry from them. If a home has both a frontloading washing machine and a frontloading dryer, the person doing the laundry has twice the potential injury to their body.
Even the materials needed to do the laundry, such as detergents, can present another concern. If they are stored on an upper shelf, then the individual has to move them down to use them. Forces required and which can impact the spine or lower back can be close to or over 1000 pounds of stress. The shoulders are also, similarly, brought into play and placed in danger. Again this is a function of setting the laundry detergents on an upper shelf.
Aging is frequently associated with the gradual degeneration of
physiological and cognitive functions, such as impairments of vision
and hearing, loss of hand grip and dexterity, and decline in motor skills…
Regarding the elderly, few studies have investigated the ergonomic use of household appliances by them. Since it is becoming more prevalent for the elderly to live alone and less likely to live with their children, household appliances have increased in importance in their facility to be helpful for these individuals who wish to live independently.
Although some washing machine manufacturers have attempted to increase the ability of their machines to provide new functions, elderly individuals have found that they suffer from feature fatigue and consequent low useability and satisfaction with these products. A focus group of elderly washing machine users indicated that there was a problem with the buttons on the operating panel that were too dense and made it seem too complicated. They didn’t feel that many buttons were required for the actual operation of the machine, and the controls were too small and too close together, so it was hard to select the correct button.
Again, as with other washing machine users, elderly users found that top loading machines were difficult to lean into, and frontloading machines were also problematic because they required stooping down. A preferred machine would have a tilt open door, allowing the person to stand almost upright.
How independent would you feel if you couldn’t do your laundry when you wanted? Paying for it, on an often fixed income, to be done by someone else isn’t an option.
But what about anyone with a physical disability? No one seems to be addressing this particular need, and one wonders how disabled users can use one of the currently available washing machines and what they might prefer.
Is there a psychological aspect to the washing machine syndrome? Yes, if you consider that lower back pain results in depression and distorts a person’s ability to act in an even-tempered manner. As noted, patients with debilitating chronic low back pain show personality characteristics that deviate significantly from the normal population norms but do not reach maladaptive forms of personality disorders.
It would seem there’s creative work to be done, and more user input is needed for the washing machine to indeed be the innovation we all thought it was when it was first introduced.