Focus on alumni:
Ergonomic and Safety Consultant
Karin Alwin first learned about industrial engineering while studying Russian as an undergraduate. Every semester Alwin took a course in a subject she knew nothing about to sample the variety of expertise available at UW-Madison. The experimentation paid off when she took an introductory industrial engineering course about human factors.
“I thought, ‘Aha, this is what I really should be doing.’ It was absolutely fascinating,” says Alwin, who is now an independent ergonomic and safety consultant in Madison.
Her interest in ergonomics is closely tied to her passion for problem solving. At the heart of her work is a question: “How can I create a job situation where employees go home the same way they showed up for their shift?”
“People are not machines, and they never will be,” she says, explaining the key to ergonomics is matching human capabilities with what people are required to do at work. “It’s about trying to fit the work to the worker, not the worker to the work.”
Alwin evaluates facilities and offers ergonomic training for supervisors and employees in a variety of manufacturing, distribution and office environments. She has provided training for people in more than 30 countries and speaks Spanish and basic Italian in addition to Russian.
Her interest in Russian goes back to high school; the strong liberal arts program at UW-Madison was a reason she left her native Minneapolis, Minnesota, to become a Badger.
Russian and engineering aren’t completely unrelated. “I like the challenge of Russian. You have to put pieces together like an equation—each word, depending on its function, plays by a different set of rules,” Alwin says.
She honed her problem-solving skills in the industrial engineering program, and she is grateful for the real-world situations her professors used in class. They accompanied textbook theory with real examples, and class projects often paired Alwin with actual clients in need of consulting.
After graduating, she returned to Minnesota to work at 3M as an advanced ergonomist, rising to senior ergonomist in corporate ergonomics two years later.
“I had a leg up because I knew how to have meetings with high-level management people and knew how to put together a project timeline,” she says. She still referred to her class notes during her first years at 3M.
At 3M, Alwin was involved in a variety of training and implementation projects, acting as an internal consultant for the entire 3M company, which has branches around the world. She was sent to Pasadena, California, for a year and worked in several European and Latin American countries.
One of her notable international projects was to design a new online data collection system. Her goal was to develop a system that users could master in five minutes without any training—a major undertaking since the system was mainly for collaborators who don’t speak English as a first language.
In addition to cultural awareness, her work as an ergonomist also requires an understanding of the human body, which helps her evaluate what happens to a worker’s muscles, blood vessels and nerves. Alwin completed graduate coursework in kinesiology and exercise physiology at the University of Minnesota.
Along with the human benefits, implementing ergonomics can have an economic effect since employees are more productive when they are well. In most cases, ergonomic solutions require little money and often make the entire manufacturing process more efficient.
One example is lifting boxes. Repeatedly lifting the same box is more likely to cause a back injury and also is inefficient. Rather, changing the process to eliminate double-handling protects the worker and helps the company speed up production time.
Alwin turns the concept into an equation when she trains supervisors: “If you do x, this will decrease your rate of injury by y, which will increase your profit by z.”
Recently, Alwin left the Twin Cities again to become an independent consultant. “Madison is very cosmopolitan for its size,” she says. “Coming from a cultural city like Minneapolis, that was something I was looking for.”
In her spare time, Alwin enjoys anything outdoors and often competes in inline roller blade marathons. She is also an avid rock-climber, which requires her to work through difficult situations.
“As an engineer, I really love problem solving,” she says, smiling.