What is Ergonomics?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ergonomics is the science of studying how people interact with their working environments. Specialists in this field often make recommendations which are designed to improve safety and productivity in work environments, ranging from the deck of a nuclear submarine to the secretary's desk in a high rise building. Concern about safety at work has led some nations to use government agencies such as the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) in the United States to establish and enforce laws concerning ergonomic workplaces.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) in the United States establishes and enforces laws concerning ergonomics.
The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) in the United States establishes and enforces laws concerning ergonomics.

The word “ergonomics” literally means “the laws of work.” This field began to arise in the Second World War, when several governments began realizing that workplace design had a huge impact on safety and productivity. Making small changes such as altering the lights used in instrument displays in aircraft could make a big difference, and as the war wound down, more extensive research into ergonomics began. By the 1980s, ergonomics was a very large field, and ergonomics recommendations had begun to trickle down to the general public.

A telephone headset is the most popular ergonomic option for someone who is often on the phone.
A telephone headset is the most popular ergonomic option for someone who is often on the phone.

When people think of this science, they often think of physical ergonomics, which involves designing workplaces which support people physically. A classic example of physical ergonomics is the arrangement of a workstation. Ideally, a workstation should allow someone to sit in a proper position, and to access equipment easily and safely, without creating strain. Physical ergonomic concerns also extend to things like the design of equipment, the layout of rooms, and the arrangement of lighting. In all cases, it is designed to create a workplace in which people physically and comfortably fit.

Ergonomics is the science of studying how people interact with their working environments.
Ergonomics is the science of studying how people interact with their working environments.

Ergonomically correct machinery and furniture is increasingly available, with many concerns being focused on people who with computers. Computers are not very ergonomic, with keyboards in particular being a major issue, and many people who work heavily on the computer experience repetitive stress injuries as part of their work. Reducing disability, discomfort, and pain as a result of such injuries is important in many workplaces.

Ergonomics may help prevent repetitive motion injuries in industrial workers.
Ergonomics may help prevent repetitive motion injuries in industrial workers.

However, ergonomics also occurs on a cognitive level. Displays designed with cognitive ergonomics in mind are easier to read, understand, and utilize, for example. The stop sign is an excellent example: it is bold, standing out against the surrounding environment to make it easy to see, and it is also easy to process and understand. As anyone who has ever struggled with a confusing user interface knows, accounting for how the human brain works when designing things can make a significant difference.

Ergonomic computer desks are designed with human physiology in mind.
Ergonomic computer desks are designed with human physiology in mind.

The study of ergonomic principles also includes organizational ergonomics, the structure of organizations. A well arranged organization promotes innovation, efficiency, and satisfaction within the organization, while one which is arranged poorly will struggle. Some companies hire consultants to evaluate the way they are organized and provide suggestions for improvement.

Some people believe changing the layout of the keyboard can reduce the risk of repetitive stress injuries from typing, even without special ergonomic products.
Some people believe changing the layout of the keyboard can reduce the risk of repetitive stress injuries from typing, even without special ergonomic products.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

anon132104

ergonomics is the science of studying how people interact with their working environments.

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