Distinguished Professor: Arun Garg

His ergonomics work has advanced understanding of repetitive-motion injuries and influenced OSHA policies.

By Peter Hansen
Photo Arun Garg

In the mid-1970s, Arun Garg got in on the ground floor of the new field of ergonomics. As a graduate student at the University of Michigan studying operations engineering, he met Don Chaffin, an ergonomics pioneer who was then conducting human-motion studies for NASA’s Skylab space station and Apollo missions.

“I could see that there was a great need that needed to be fulfilled,” Garg recalls of his first exposure to ergonomics. “That field was beginning to evolve at that time. I felt that I could make a significant contribution.”

Since then, Garg, a UWM professor of industrial engineering, has himself done pioneering work to decrease occupational injuries caused by repetitive motion and heavy lifting in industrial and health-care settings.

By tracking large groups of workers in various industries and collecting data on the physical demands of their jobs and their health problems, Garg has developed models that quantify risk factors for such conditions as low back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and rotator cuff tendonitis.

In 1991, Garg was the chief consultant to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) when it developed one of the most-used tools for measuring and analyzing lifting tasks, the Revised NIOSH Lifting Equation. In 1994, Garg co-developed the Strain Index, a widely used method to analyze jobs for risk of musculoskeletal injuries to the hands and forearm.

In the late ‘90s, Garg devised the Zero-Lift Patient Transfer Program, aimed at reducing lower-back injuries to nurses and nurses’ aides caused by lifting and transferring patients. The program, which involves use of machines to move patients between wheelchair, bed, toilet, or shower, has decreased injuries and their associated costs substantially in each participating facility. In a 2000 study involving several health-care facilities, injuries decreased 62 percent, lost workdays went down 86 percent, and workers’ compensation costs decreased 85 percent.

Garg directs the Center for Ergonomics at UWM, one of the first laboratories of its kind in the nation when it opened in 2004. The center conducts research on work-related musculoskeletal disorders of the upper extremities and low back pain, and also provides education and consulting services.

Garg’s impact in the study of ergonomics has been far-reaching. “Most of the biomechanical models are directly his research or derived from it,” University of Utah-Salt Lake City professor Kurt Hegmann, a frequent collaborator with Garg, told the Milwaukee Business Journal in 2002. “He has had an enormous impact in the field. People in Wisconsin are completely in the dark as far as how big of a guy he is in ergonomics.”

Garg says he’d like to spend the rest of his career improving the lives of the elderly and people with disabilities. “I’d like to see what we can do to make them more functional, so they can live more independent lives, whether it is at their home or going to work.”

While Garg has worked with local industry, much of his focus has been national, and he’s looking to make an impact closer to home.

“We’d like to get more and more involved,” he says. “It’s my time to pay back to the community.”