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Tech engineer, family make 1997 a record publishing year

By Liz Crumbley

Spectrum Volume 20 Issue 16 - January 15, 1998

Few authors can boast of achieving a publication record equal to Karl Kroemer's in 1997. The Virginia Tech industrial and systems engineering professor produced three books that were published this year, one of which he co-authored with his wife and daughter.
Kroemer teaches and researches in the area of ergonomics and directs the university's Industrial Ergonomics Laboratory. He became interested in ergonomics--the study of human characteristics for the appropriate design of living and working environments--while a mechanical-engineering student at the Technical University Hannover in Germany.
"I learned the concepts of making human motion easier with engineering," Kroemer said. "For example, tendons used thousands of times will wear out eventually, but we can develop engineering methods to avoid conditions in the workplace that cause wear and tear of the human anatomy."
Kroemer and his wife, Hilde, who is president of the Ergonomics Research Institute Inc. in Radford, along with their daughter, Katrin, a biomechanical engineer who works for a leading U.S. manufacturer of orthopedic devices and body joints, wrote Engineering Physiology: Bases of Human Factors/Ergonomics, their third edition of the book, published by Van Nostrand Reinhold.
The book provides an explanation of human physiology to engineers who design work equipment, Kroemer said. Engineers, he said, don't need all the detailed information about the subject that medical students require. "When I worked at the Max-Planck Institute for Work Physiology in Germany, my boss said of his own book on the subject that medical readers thought it was too easy and engineers found it too complicated." The Kroemers have written a practical guide free of medical jargon; the book is aimed at upper-level students and practicing engineers.
Writing as a family is not new to the Kroemers. "I've been writing and working with my wife for years," Karl said. Hilde, a specialist in instructional techniques, "has helped me learn to teach better." A few years ago, Karl wrote Ergonomics, a widely used textbook, with Katrin and her older sister, Henrike, a psychologist who specializes in helping people with job stress and weight loss.
In 1997, Kroemer also produced the fifth edition of Fitting the Task to the Human, an introductory-level ergonomics textbook. Etienne Grandjean, a physiologist and one of the leading figures in European ergonomics for three decades, wrote the first four editions before he died in 1991. Kroemer's edition remains true to Grandjean's approach and style, but he had to update more than the ergonomics information. "I found that Grandjean always referred to workers as `he,' for example," said Kroemer, who had to modernize some other references to women in the text.
Ergonomic Design for Material Handling Systems, the third textbook published under Kroemer's authorship in 1997, is a first edition. "There's more to material handling in industry than lifting," he said. He cites a study of 4,000 postal workers, half of whom were trained to lift materials safely and half of whom were not trained. "Oddly enough, the trained workers experienced the same number of injuries over a period of five years as the untrained experienced," Kroemer said. His book explains how materials-handling systems can be designed to reduce worker injuries as well as increase efficiency.
"I like to take it easy," was a favorite saying of Kroemer's boss in the 1960s at the Max-Planck Institute. Kroemer quoted his former boss to highlight an important concept of ergonomics--that easing the stress and strain of human activity is an excellent approach to increasing productivity.
Kroemer applies this stress-free approach to writing. "I have fun putting all the information together," said the author/editor of 20 books, 40 book chapters, and more than 140 articles.