UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Bus and truck drivers often work long hours in postures that are known to increase their chances of musculoskeletal issues, including lower back pain, tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome. These positions and operator workstations currently place drivers at increased risk of slower reaction and response times and at a higher risk of sustaining acute injuries in crashes. Poor driver workstation visibility also increases risks for other drivers and pedestrians.
Researchers at Penn State have been awarded $250,000 from the Transportation Research Board to improve bus driver health and safety by transforming operator workstation design, assessment and ergonomics.
Led by principal investigator (PI) Matthew Parkinson, professor of engineering design and mechanical engineering and director of the Bernard M. Learning Factory, the research team will create a design and assessment toolkit that will simultaneously consider how vehicle geometry, driver body type, vision and posture limitations impact a driver’s safety and long-term health. Andris Freivalds, Lucas Professor in Industrial Engineering, and Yiqi Zhang, assistant professor of industrial engineering, are serving as co-PIs. Heecheon You, professor in the Department of Industrial and Management Engineering at Pohang University of Science and Technology, and David Klinikowski, assistant research professor with Penn State’s Larson Transportation Institute (LTI), are serving as investigators.
Current bus operator workstation design and assessment tools are based solely on laboratory data focused on out-of-date workstation conditions and driver population information.
The team’s research will focus on creating an analysis tool that will direct the design of new vehicles and guides that describe design, assessment and component best practices.
“Safety — that of the drivers, their passengers, and the vehicles and people around the bus — is only achievable if the driver workstation is well-designed,” Parkinson said. “In the last 40 years, the body size and shape of people in the U.S. have changed significantly. Additionally, more women are entering the driver workforce. Understanding how these changes affect design requirements is critical.”
The team will review literature and worker databases to identify factors that impact safety and driver turnover rates. Crash data gathered from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of accidents that involved buses will help determine predictors for driver safety performance.
Using this data, a virtual fit test (VFT) will be conducted, using abstract representations of bus drivers. The VFT will examine each individual representation and the simulated interactions within the workstation design. Because bus drivers differ in size and shape measurements, this approach will be able to accurately predict various factors related to driver health and safety.
After creating virtual populations of male and female bus drivers suitable for testing, the team will use the bus geometry data to estimate realistic and accurate driver posture. The researchers will also perform motion analysis on bus testing videos collected by LTI to better predict how posture relates to musculoskeletal disorders.
These results will be pulled together into the VFT tool to create an easy-to-use toolkit consisting of an electronic evaluation tool and how-to-guides. This tool will include safe operator best practices and design principles, resulting in more comfortable and safer bus-operator workstations.
“The toolkit we are developing will help manufacturers and other stakeholders to quickly evaluate some aspects of the driver workstation,” Parkinson said. “It will provide clear guidance on strengths and weakness of candidate designs and how they can be improved. Since the intention is that it be broadly disseminated, we will not be able to control its implementation. As a result, the toolkit needs to be unambiguous and easy-to-use.”