Visiting Fulbright Scholar continues late father's work in ergonomics

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Since World War II, researchers in the United States have recognized the value of ergonomics, seeking ways to ensure workers are safe, comfortable and more efficient in their jobs. However, in other countries, such as Latvia, home of visiting Fulbright Scholar Henrijs Kalkis, the topic is still relatively new.

Kalkis' father, Valdis, was the founder of scientific ergonomics in Latvia and one of the first to earn the title of certified European ergonomist in the country. He teamed up with Andris Freivalds, Penn State professor of industrial engineering, to form the Latvian Ergonomics Society in 2006.

Freivalds recalled, "I met Valdis when I was teaching short courses in ergonomics in Latvia in the 1990s. He was a professor of chemistry at the University of Latvia, but he later shifted his research and teaching focus to occupational health and safety, of which ergonomics is a huge factor."

Freivalds established a long-term friendship with his Latvian colleague. "Valdis was truly at the forefront of ergonomics education and was one of the first to seek grants from the European Union to study ergonomics."

In July 2014, the Latvian pioneer passed away. However, his efforts in the field will go on: Henrijs Kalkis is following in his father's footsteps.

He is currently working in the Harold and Inge Marcus Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering with Freivalds to investigate ergonomic stress in contemporary technological work environments. Kalkis explained, "Approximately 30 percent of employees in Latvia report an increase in physical workload. This excessive workload can result in serious health problems."

As part of his Fulbright project, Kalkis has developed and delivered lectures for Freivalds' IE 327: Introduction to Work Design and IE 479: Human Centered Product Design and Innovation courses. He explained, "It's been a great experience. The IE 479 course is streamed live to students at Seoul National University in Korea, so my lectures reach beyond Penn State."

Kalkis is also collaborating with Conrad Tucker, assistant professor of industrial engineering, to study humans' movements in an industrial setting. "We are using a motion capturing system to see if the workers are moving within or beyond boundaries we consider to be normal. We're still trying to figure out how to alert them if they move out of that comfort zone."

Kalkis said that, aside from his working relationship with Freivalds, the main factor in choosing to come to Penn State is the research facilities. "In Latvia, we don't have access to technological resources, like the Benjamin W. Niebel Work Design Laboratory, to study ergonomics. We also don't take the same research approach. Penn State is the place to get this experience."

Both Freivalds and Kalkis agree that their research could lead to an array of benefits for employees and employers alike, such as reducing medical costs, increasing work efficiency and ensuring worker sustainability. "It's really a blend of well-being and job performance," said Kalkis.

Next February, he will return to the University of Latvia to incorporate lessons learned at Penn State into some of his courses. "Ergonomics is part of good business. It’s a very relevant topic for my human resource management, and quality and process management classes."

Kalkis said the end of his Fulbright Scholarship won't mean the end of his connection to Penn State. "I am proud to continue the great work my father started with Penn State, and I look forward to future collaboration on this topic."

Last Updated November 10, 2014