Neal Wiggermann, PhD (PhD ’11)

Neal Wiggermann-smallIt was enthusiasm for occupational safety and health and a little luck that ultimately led me to pursue my PhD at the University of Michigan. I received both my bachelors and masters degrees in Industrial Engineering from the University of Cincinnati. As an industrial engineer studying work, something we do for nearly half of our waking life, I became fascinated with the idea of helping to enhance worker safety and quality of life through improved workplace design. I decided to obtain a PhD in order to gain more specialized ergonomics knowledge and learn the research methods that would assist in this pursuit.

While investigating which university to attend for my PhD, I learned about the Occupational Safety Engineering & Ergonomics (OSE) program and a General Motors/United Auto Workers (GM/UAW) sponsored ergonomics project at the University of Michigan (UM). My desire to reduce the risk of injury for employees, to improve workplace safety, and to increase workplace efficiency seemed well aligned with the GM/UAW project’s objectives. After reviewing the program information and faculty profiles provided through the COHSE and Industrial Operations Engineering (IOE) websites and networking with the students, faculty, and staff of the IOE department, it was clear that UM was going to be a great fit for me.

From the beginning of my PhD program, I worked as a research assistant on the GM/UAW project. The project constituted an epidemiological study of workers in an engine assembly plant that investigated risk factors for lower extremity disorders. My role in this project was to assess worker exposures to potential risk factors such as working posture (i.e., sitting, standing, walking) and flooring conditions. During the GM/UAW project I became interested in the effects of flooring design on discomfort during prolonged standing, and this ultimately became the focus of my dissertation research. Under the guidance of my academic advisor, OSE Director Monroe Keyserling, my research investigated pressure on the foot as a potential mechanism to explain discomfort and the role of flooring design. During my PhD program I also served as the president of the student chapter of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES), and I presented my research at their annual national conferences.

Since graduating in 2011, I have been working as an Ergonomics Specialist and Senior Biomedical Engineer at Hill-Rom, a medical device company that specializes in hospital beds, patient handling equipment, and operating room equipment. I manage their new ergonomics laboratory, where we perform original research to inform device design as well as test new product prototypes. As part of my job, I visit medical facilities to observe how our products are used and understand the needs of their users. In addition to shadowing nurses to observe their job demands, I am also able to talk with patients about their needs. Understanding the hospital environment not only ensures that the experiments I design in the lab faithfully reproduce the work environment but also enables me to effectively work with engineers and designers at Hill-Rom to develop products that reduce the risk of injury to both nurses and patients.

As I continue developing our lab and research program at Hill-Rom I plan to continue working with nurses to improve the safety of the hospital room environment. I also expect to broaden our research program to more applications in the operating room. Additionally, I am particularly interested in expanding partnerships with university researchers and governmental agencies to fill industry-wide research needs. I also plan to have greater involvement with students, which I hope to achieve through mentoring interns, guest lecturing, and perhaps one day teaching a night course.

My PhD program at UM prepared me well for my current role and my future career aspirations. My doctoral research provided the knowledge and skills needed to successfully lead research and collaborate with design teams to improve caregiver safety and health and patient outcomes. These are skills that I use every day in my work.