For the first podcast episode of 2022, I’m thrilled to feature Niamh Pentony. 

Niamh Pentony is an Ergonomist and Director at Boyne Ergonomics; she's also a member of the Accelerate: The Business of Ergonomics Membership. Niamh brings a wealth of education and experience built upon years of continuous education, combined with 10 years carrying out ergonomic risk and DSE assessments and over 13 years of VDU eye assessments. She's carried out these assessments at every business level; from small businesses to large multinational corporations. Currently,  Niamh is offering virtual home workstation assessments to comply with COVID-19 restrictions.

In this episode, Niamh shared about her career journey transitioning from being an employee to running her own businesses. And luckily for the readers of ergonomicsHelp, she isn’t afraid to give some real-world advice on how to make this transition as seamless as possible. Scroll down to read the excerpt of our interview.

Would you mind sharing a little bit about yourself?

NP: I'm based here in Ireland. My background is actually Sports Science, so I did my primary degree in Sport Science and Health. After that, I worked for an occupational health company where I was a clinical technician. While I was there, I came into contact all the time with people who’ve been assessed for returning to work or absenteeism and all this kind of stuff. A huge proportion of it was people out of work because of back pain. That got me interested, so I went on and did a master's in applied ergonomics in Nottingham. That's how I got into this field. 

I hadn't heard about ergonomics until I started having conversations with some of the occupational health physicians like, “Why has this person been off for six months? They just worked at a computer. Why can't they just go back to work?” And then we started to get interested. It's only when I looked into it that I discovered ergonomics, what it is, and how it can be applied. Of course, that got my sports and exercise brain tingling. I already had the background. I just needed to learn how to apply this to help people get back to work. 

Ergonomics very much feels like something you hear about when you're already in your other career. And then you find out about it and learn how to get into it. 

Did you get into the ergonomics industry with office ergonomics assessments?

NP: Yeah. I say for my first year after I qualified, it was pretty much all office-based because that's where the demand was, and that was the kind of clients that my employer had. My first year was all corporate office clients. 

Would you be able to share any memorable ergonomic assessments from that space? 

NP: There's one that sticks in my mind, and it actually shifted where I think I'm going to take the business in over the next couple of years. It was just a corporate one. The referral was just simple back pain. I went onsite to meet the guy, and we talked a bit about the issues he was having. As I was talking to him, I could tell there was something else. We went to one of the rooms and I said, “I hear what you're saying about the back pain, but is there anything else going on?” He said, “Actually, I'm dyslexic.” 

He’s in an open-plan office. He’s sitting right beside the main thoroughfare where everybody walks up and down, and the printers and copiers are behind him. So he was in a really busy, noisy part of the office. So I sat there with him and watched him work. And every time somebody walks by or every time the printer goes, his body tightens up. So even after fixing the chair, he's still carrying so much tension in his back, neck, and shoulders from this constant traffic, and he was finding it so difficult to concentrate. 

It wasn't just a matter of fixing his workstation, we needed to look at the environment. I said, “Look, the way you have him sitting and this setup is having a negative impact on him physically and mentally. How about we move him to a quieter part of the office?” So I put that in the report. About 15 months later, I got a request for a virtual assessment. It was the same guy sitting in the same place as he had been 15 months ago. He’s still having back pain. He’s still tight and still having trouble concentrating. So again, I had to approach the manager. What it showed me was that they were so quick to accept the physical recommendations, but then they also chose to ignore the environmental recommendations based on his neurodiversity. That really got me thinking that this isn’t something employers are really considering. 

So I know my plan now for next year. I signed up to do a graduate diploma in neurodiversity to get a greater understanding. Obviously, I don't have a lot of personal experience with neurodiverse people. So I'm going to do this qualification and then see how we can bring ergonomics into this cohort because there are so many who haven't even told their employers that they have dyslexia, dyspraxia, or that they're on the spectrum. They've never mentioned it because they're slightly afraid to. So what I love to do is bring ergonomics into that, but also look at the processes and the way that they receive the information, the way that they're expected to deliver that information, and just try to reduce the stress from these people, and get them functioning and thriving in the workplace.

One of the differences that I noticed between the UK and North America is that the latter is more physical ergonomics based. When I was doing my master’s in the UK, it was more cognitive, things like the NASA TLX and other mental workload measures. I was expecting it to shift over the years but I never really saw the transition. So how does that look for you doing ergonomics assessments on the day-to-day? 

On the day to day, employees and employers aren’t really interested in the cognitive models or in the workloads. They want to know what’s wrong physically and what can I fix. Any other issues are up to the employee to sort out. I find that in corporate. In industry, they're a lot more open to the workload models because that has a huge impact on safety. 

I notice that the UK and Ireland are still very reactive. A lot of the ergonomics is a reaction to somebody having a problem. Whereas North America, from what I understand speaking with you and in the Accelerate group, seems to be reactive and a lot more proactive. One of the things I've definitely noticed from the Accelerate group and researchers in North America is that you have workers’ comp. Ergonomics is always brought in as a way to reduce workers’ comp, but we don't have that here. If there's an injury, employers aren’t bringing us in to reduce the cost of the claim. They're bringing us in to get that person back to work and make sure it doesn't happen again. For me, that’s the big difference between the two environments. I think if workers’ comp was more of a thing here, we probably would be a little bit more proactive. But that environment doesn't really exist here.

Many of our listeners are interested in going into ergonomics. You mentioned being part of a corporation and then making a shift. How did you go about making that shift? Was it a hard decision or were there indicators that you needed to do this passion for yourself?

NP: While it was a side hustle, ergonomics was part of a larger job that I did. But over the years, it became my favorite part. I wanted a degree of control over my job, and I wanted to become more independent. The role that I was in was shifting into more admin-based and less ergonomics, and I wasn’t too happy with that because ergonomics was my favorite part. In 2014, I had the idea to make ergonomics my focus and my sole profession, but life happened. 

It wasn't possible until January 2019. I sat down with my husband, and I said, “Look, this is the year that I'm going to do this.” At the end of April 2019, I handed my notice to my employer and quit my job. So I had January to April to figure out what I needed to do to run a business and to become a business. I left my job at the end of May on a Wednesday and had my first independent job the next day on Thursday.

What would be your piece of advice to people looking to get into ergonomics? 

NP: This very much comes from what I didn't do but what I would say is to find your network. So firstly, join whatever your local society or association will be. In Ireland, we have the Irish Human Factors & Ergonomics Society, and we also have the Chartered Institute in the UK. I'm now a member of both. Find your group. You can join as a student member or a graduate member. Just get in there and start to get to know people because the field of ergonomics is so vast. 

Join your network. Your local one first. Then sit back and investigate the field and see what appeals to you in the area. It may be office ergonomics. It may be industry. It may be design. It may be workplace planning. The area is so massive. Find your little niche. Look at what you need to do to gain experience and reach out. Ask someone to mentor you. Ask if there’s someone that you could tag along while they do their work and see if it's for you. Dip your toe in and find your niche. In this field, you cannot be an expert in everything because it’s so vast. So pick your areas that you're going to focus on and give your 100%. The thing is, there's room for everybody in this field because there's not enough of us. 

And then I do recommend joining the Accelerate group. We're terrible marketers, which is why your group exists. We're bad at selling ourselves, but we do need to do that to be successful. In my first two years, I didn't know marketing. Luckily for me, my business grew organically. I really didn't need to market. My name got out there and people came to me, but that got me so far. And then there came a point when I said, “I want to develop this business more.” That's when I had to start learning about marketing and customer journey. I didn't know any of these things because I didn't have to, but it is essential to get to the next level. Organic growth will only get you so far. So you do have to be prepared to put the work in that side, as well as finding your niche. 

And there you have it! If you have additional questions for Niamh, you can connect with her on her website or on Instagram.

If you want to learn how I'm helping Ergonomics Consultants grow and scale their businesses, be part of the same program that Niamh is in. Sign up to the Accelerate membership now so you’ll be the first one to know when I open the next enrollment. 


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